Boston has just completed an astonishing 20-year transformation under the leadership of Tom Menino. Now it’s time for the people of Boston — and Boston’s new mayor — to think about what we want the city to look like 20 years from now, and what the city should be. Crucial not only to the appearance of the city, but to its identity, is public art. Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh should make public art a priority — by resubmitting the “Percent for Art” ordinance that the City Council approved in 2005 but Menino never implemented, and by initiating the creation of a master plan for a public art program.
Walsh’s website puts forth an admirable, aggressive position on the arts and their importance to the city, both culturally and economically.
Walsh wants to create a cabinet-level commissioner for the arts, and has indicated his support for a percent-for-art program. These programs generally require that a percent of the cost of new development go for the creation and maintenance of public art.
The public art scene in Boston will go nowhere without the money to support it. Even a minimal commitment can make a big difference, improving the economy and quality of life in Boston as well as presenting a new face to the rest of the world.
A creative resurgence in the past five years has begun to challenge Boston’s reputation for stodgy public art. The outstanding examples are two works that have adorned Dewey Square since last August. First came the blast of color created by Brazilian graffiti artists Os Gêmeos, an untitled masked figure known popularly as “the kid.” Replacing it in October was a more abstract mural, entitled “Remanence: Salt and Light (Part II),” by British artist Matthew Ritchie.
By occupying a 70-foot-by-70-foot outdoor space at a major crossroads near South Station, these works have declared that this is a community where art is a valued part of the public dialogue. What’s more, these pieces have helped draw attention to a public art scene that’s more vibrant now than it’s ever been.
A look at the websites of the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy (Dewey Square is part of the Greenway) and the Boston Art Commission shows dozens of ongoing grass-roots and larger public art projects. They include everything from the “PaintBox” program that grants local artists permission to decorate city utility boxes in their neighborhoods to artist Mia Pearlman’s “Uplift” sculpture outside the Liberty Mutual headquarters in the Back Bay.
But neither the Greenway conservancy nor the Boston Arts Commission has a budget to buy new art. The Os Gêmeos and Ritchie pieces were commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art with funding from public and private donors. The Dewey Square pieces show both the promise and the problem with Boston’s public art scene: It’s haphazard and catch-as-catch-can. That’s why the city needs a comprehensive plan and a reliable funding stream.
How important is municipal funding? Chicago, under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, created Millennium Park, a showcase for public art and public design. It now holds one of the most celebrated pieces of contemporary public art in the United States, Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate.” Philadelphia has created a vibrant contemporary art program in Fairmount Park. San Francisco’s civic art collection comprises 4,000 objects.
All those cities have a method of funding. Ricardo Barreto, a public art consultant who for 13 years was director of the UrbanArts Institute at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, says, “If you have a policy for public art that says .5, 1, 1.5, or 2 percent of construction monies for public projects has to go to public art, then you have a financial base on which to really develop a coherent plan.”
With funding in place, a master plan could be created to take into consideration the social, cultural, and economic fabric of the city.
As Barreto explains, “You’re looking at cultural institutions and their geographic distribution throughout the city. Where is culture focused, where are there gaps, what are the businesses in a [particular] city that determine its economic activity? How would you like public art to tie into the economic and cultural life of the city?” The master plan process would assess the desires of neighborhoods to ensure all Bostonians would be represented.
With recently passed legislation, the board of the Boston Art Commission has expanded from five to nine people, in part to provide for more neighborhood representation. With the proper funding, the commission could devise a comprehensive plan and begin the process of building the city’s collection and guiding what Barreto calls “the visual vocabulary” of the city.
Such support can make a difference even beyond funding. “Cloud Gate” had a price tag of $23 million, all of it from private donations. Using his own impressive powers of persuasion, and his ability to mobilize a diverse constituency, Mayor Walsh can transform Boston’s public art landscape.Jon Garelick, a freelance writer in Somerville, can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jgarelick.