Walking the fine line between public art and public outrage

Public art can create all kinds of response. You might find it to be an amazing accentuation of the building, hallway or plaza it is in, or you might see it as so tacky that it shouldn’t be decorating a landfill, much less a public thoroughfare.

Where I grew up in Arizona, there were not a lot of murals or sculptures or other displays of creative talent. Aside from a mural on the wall of my high school cafeteria, I didn’t see a lot of public art first hand. There were a bunch of creative artists in my class, but they weren’t all out putting up murals or sprucing up park benches.

Over the years, I wondered if it was because Chino Valley was an agricultural community, with people more focused on growing food and flowers than colorful displays. Then I moved to Shawano, Wisconsin, last year, and I discovered that rural and art can mix.

Prior to my arrival, a program was started in Shawano County where colorful barn quilts were installed on old barns. Before you all imagine spinster ladies huddled over sewing machines banging out cloth creations for the barns, the quilts are actually wooden squares with colorful patterns like what you would see on a quilt.

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Last month, the project passed the 100 mark, with many more already in the works. It’s like the local craze; every farmer wants one. They’re definitely awesome to look at on the road, especially in the dead of winter, where there’s no color to really speak of otherwise.

There is something similar taking place on a smaller scale in Gresham, only instead of decorating barns, they’re decorating buildings throughout the village. A lot of them are your basic quilt designs, but my favorite is the one on the side of the community school with the design of a wildcat in multiple colors. Very colorful, and very noticeable.

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A few years earlier, a village on the west side of the county, Wittenberg, decided to use public art to its advantage and restore its disappearing downtown after the state moved the main highway out of the community. Calling the project the Walls of Wittenberg, the community called on artists, most of them local, to paint murals on the sides of buildings in the downtown area. There are now 20 in all, and they’ve brought an interesting glow to the area.

There’s one at the retirement home, one next to a bar with overtones of the 1800s decorating two walls, and one showcasing the heroes of the community — firefighters. They make the place into one giant art gallery, which is rather interesting considering there is an actual art gallery in the downtown area, with a sculpture garden next to it.

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This rural county in Wisconsin has a lot going for it in terms of public art. That’s why I’ve had to shake my head at some of the public art brouhahas going on back home, where the displays have polarized the community.

In 2010, Prescott, the county seat where I grew up, drew attention for a mural painted on the side of an elementary school. The mural was supposed to promote community harmony, but it reignited racial tensions. The main figure in the mural is black, which prompted a city councilman to question why that was the case since Prescott is predominantly white. That led to public protests for and against the mural, tons of letters to the editor in the local newspaper, and a recall attempt on the city councilman. It also led to discussion of developing a public art policy.

Public art in Prescott turned ugly again last year when a college student crafted an unusual park bench. It prompted an outcry because the original design submitted to the city looked nothing like the finished product. It led to more public outrage on both sides and ended with the bench’s dead-of-night dismantling.

Now, there’s a committee looking into rules for public art. That’s a double-edged sword, as you develop boundaries to keep out clutter, but you also set up a judgment system for what is art. That might work well and good with juried exhibitions where prizes are involved, but it can be dangerous to put the decision of what art is in a few heads.

It’s sad to see that public art is causing so much division back home, but I can take heart that the rural county I live in has it figured out. I haven’t come across any public art rules here so far, but if there aren’t, I say don’t fix what isn’t broken. Maybe Prescott will figure it out someday, or even better, maybe Chino Valley, the town where I grew up, will take the lead and bring public art to a whole new level, where racial tensions and government interference will be a thing of the past.

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