By Lacey Luce
This summer ART literally made its mark on the Columbus map for 30 days with a project called Sign Your Art. While this particular public art installation was temporary, the city has a growing collection of art in public spaces from permanent sculpture and murals to temporary installations that pop up inside and outside of buildings.
With new eye candy appearing daily, questions begin to arise about the impact of art in public spaces on the city, the community and the artists.
The Sign Your Art project, which put ART on the Columbus map, was temporary but multifaceted involving the community, professional artists, the city, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and the Columbus Art Commission (the city appointed agency that reviews and approves public art in Columbus). Sign Your Art was the brain child of Columbus-based artist Stephanie Rond, a street artist whose work is part of the international Google Street Art Project. Produced by Rond and Columbus-based artist Catherine Bell Smith, the project first engaged the community by inviting visitors to the Columbus Arts Festival to paint tiles. Of the nearly 700 tiles completed, almost 300 were chosen to be installed, along with 64 pieces commissioned from professional artists, throughout the city in mid-July. The installation points were carefully chosen sign posts in Columbus that, when pinned on Google Maps, spelled out ART.
An important aspect of this project was that it provided a connection with as much of the community as possible. In addition to hundreds of Columbusites creating works of art, the tile installations appeared in neighborhoods that are often underrepresented when it comes to public art projects.
Rond noted that even though it was raining while she and Smith were out installing the tiles, the people they encountered were excited and in some cases had already heard of the project.
“In my experience, taking down public artwork gets more of a reaction,” said Rond. “I’ve been yelled at for removing my own artwork until I tell them that I am the artist that posted it in the first place. Columbus loves public art and from the reactions I’ve gotten, they are very protective of it as well.”
Social media posts ranged from excitement to appreciation as people found the tiles in their neighborhoods and/or found tiles they had created. There was clearly a feeling of “this is so cool” coming from the public.
That cool factor has been playing out in the Short North for a long time. The neighborhood is peppered with murals and sculptures created by local artists including the iconic, and slightly twisted American Gothic couple on the corner of High and Lincoln streets.
New builds in the area have followed the trend, including the Hilton Columbus, which is connected to the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC), and Le Meridien Columbus, the Joseph Hotel, which has earned some national attention for its focus on infusing artwork in every aspect of the hotel experience.
Reese Brothers Production, a Columbus-based business that offers several art-related services to companies, was brought in by the Franklin County Convention Facility Authority (FCCFA) to procure and install a collection of artwork for the Hilton.
“Given the close proximity to the Short North and its variety of galleries, the FCCFA board felt that this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the incredible talent of Columbus artists while reflecting the rich diversity of our city,” said Michael Reese about the Hilton project.
The job resulted in a collection of artwork by more than 100 local artists ranging in age from 19-90 and representing a wide array of the ethnic and cultural heritages present in Columbus—all in the hotel’s public spaces.
Summer 2015 saw a number of calls to artists to apply for public art commissions, including work for garages in the short north, sculpture in the convention center, sculpture for the Livingston Park and an outdoor temporary installation in the Arena District. Reese Brothers have been involved in several of these projects, including those related to the convention center, which has been adamant about incorporating art in their facilities as a way to showcase to visitors the dynamic, cultural gem that is Columbus.
Reese easily explains the logic behind adding art to something as utilitarian as a parking structure.
“More than 2.5 million visitors walked through the door of the Greater Columbus Convention Center in 2014, and most of them parked,” said Reese. “What better way to introduce them to the vibrant art community that is Columbus then by welcoming them at the elevator doors on each level of the Goodale Street parking garage with a beautiful mosaic full of color and a story to be told.”
Built environments and their impact on the fabric of a city is something that Design Group Director Michael Bongiorno is passionate about.
“When we talk about ‘built environment’ what we mean are the human-made places where our daily activities occur. Be they buildings, the spaces between buildings, thoroughfares, public art, infrastructure, or constructed green spaces, they are the places in which humans (and our non-human friends!) live, work, and play,” explained Bongiorgno.
“The fabric of a city is the overall physical form of a city or town. Almost every city does, and should, have a different fabric that grows from its unique climate, geography, resources, and, importantly, culture. Working together to form an ecosystem, a good built environment with a good urban fabric fosters one of the great benefits of cities and urban life in general, and that is: interaction and engagement,” said Bongiorno.
“The vitality of good public art within all of this lies in the notion that public art is another functioning part of the urban ecosystem, of equal weight to the others, with which humans interact. In this scenario, good public art is not just something additive that is plopped into empty public realm spaces to look at, nod, and go on with your day; good public art is something that, like a well-designed building, inspires, provokes, reflects a culture, acts as an iconic gathering point, provide a backdrop for activities, and many, many other functions.
“The reason Millennium Park in Chicago is so successful and so often cited as something to aspire to, is that it embodies all of what I just described: a built environment within the public realm of the urban fabric that brings together people, place, and activity with art, inseparably and democratically, as the catalyst for the activity,” added Bongiorno.
The Franklinton area is a perfect example of an urban neighborhood evolving its built environment thoughtfully with an emphasis on interaction and engagement.
“After decades of catastrophic flooding and severe economic decline in Franklinton, many people had given up hope that ‘the bottoms’ would ever return to the healthy, happy neighborhood that it was in the past,” said Jim Sweeney, director of the Franklinton Development Association (FDA).
Sweeny went on to explain that addressing the environmental issues was not enough to pull the district out of its malaise, and various social service projects had not proven sustainable or successful.
“The absence of hope and confidence stifled not only the motivation of the residents to improve their own condition, but also the likelihood of outside investment,” said Sweeney. “The neighborhood and those who love it needed something new and optimistic—even a small source of pride and confidence on which to build. Art can provide this.”
In the case of Franklinton, more was needed than a few pieces of well placed art, and it’s still a work in progress. Sweeney and the FDA have endeavored over the years to create what is now known as the Franklinton Arts District.
The FDA has been nimble in its approach to resuscitate the neighborhood. One strategic thread of their plan has been to create art-centric events, such as the monthly Franklinton Fridays and annual Urban Scrawl, that not only encourages the neighborhood to come out but attract the rest of the community to interact and engage with the district.
Urban Scrawl, which just wrapped up its ninth year, features artists creating murals on site, several of which end up installed throughout the neighborhood. Of course, like the neighborhood, the event has grown and improved each year with live music, food and dancing.
Those who have been in Columbus long enough to remember the Short North in the 1970s can appreciate the renaissance that is happening in Franklinton.
Several artist’s studios and collectives have settled into the area, including 400 W. Rich, Glass Axis and the Idea Foundry, small galleries and businesses have developed, and the investment from outside the neighborhood has grown. In addition to new buildings already in the works, The Idea Foundry recently announced a large investment from two Columbus business leaders—an investment that will have a significant impact on the district. And, the neighborhood is peppered with art that can be experienced driving down the street, on sidewalks and in parking lots.
“Public art is an announcement to the world: Someone who is creative and courageous cares enough to invest in you,” said Sweeney. “You and your neighborhood are valued. Art is for everyone, including you.”
Built environment in general and public art in particular, does more than bring a city’s community together or build a community up, it is an integral factor in how a city is perceived by outsiders.
Columbus has long battled a perception problem—in that there really isn’t one. National research indicates that to people who have never been here, the capital city lacks “pulse,” which is defined as the amount of nightlife, urban vitality, and ease of finding things to do.
For the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau, Experience Columbus, tackling Columbus’ image issue is a priority.
“This is important because that pulse is key to visitors making the decision to come here,” said Amy Tillinghast, vice president of marketing for Experience Columbus. “Arts and culture play a huge role in perception about pulse.”
The newly finished Joseph Hotel has filled its public (and private) spaces with artwork, and their unique use of original artwork and local artists as a focal point has been getting some national attention.
A recent CNN article noted the Joseph among a small handful of hotels that are taking integration of art in their space to a new level.
“The Joseph Hotel is a very personal development for the Pizzuti family,” said Rebecca Ibel, director and curator for the Pizzuti Collection. “Even the hotel is named after Ron Pizzuti’s father. As the Pizzutis are committed art collectors, it was only natural that art would be an integral part of the design of the hotel.”
The hotel comprises more than 700 pieces of artwork. Much of the work comes from the Pizzuti Collection and quite a bit features local artists. In addition, recognizing Ohio’s abundance of world-class artists, the Pizzutis decided to install the work of Ohio’s contemporary artists in every guest room.
“The artists were invited to work with high-end art printers in Brooklyn, New York,” explained Ibel. The works were created specifically for the hotel and the artists worked together with the printer to produce fine art prints suitable for the hotel rooms.” Those limited-edition screen prints are also available for sale through the Joseph Editions.
While the art-focused concept is still rather unique in the hotel industry, Ibel explains that it’s authentic to the Pizzutis and the Short North neighborhood where the hotel resides.
“The sculpture by Nari Ward, West Liquorsoul, is a powerful piece that is more than just cool, it’s smart and complex in meaning,” said Ibel. “The same can be said for the stunning black mirror over the mantle titled I Saw Othello’s Visage in his Mind by Fred Wilson. What is even more special is that Columbus’ own art stars are celebrated in the hotel. Meeting rooms are named after important Columbus artists including, Aminah Robinson, Ann Hamilton and Denny Griffith.”
The Joseph Hotel and its focus on art is gaining the city a lot of positive national press, which hopefully will help elevate the perception of Columbus’ “pulse.”
“Public art makes Columbus attractive and memorable for visitors and can contribute to image distinction. It makes an eloquent statement about our commitment to creativity and the arts and communicates an authentic sense of place,” said Tillinghast. “I believe this is especially true of works created by local artists, who are most familiar with the history, culture and social character of our city.”
Public works of art by local artists also means income for local artists, which impacts the city’s economy and growth in creative industry jobs—a number that several new rankings are looking at closely when evaluating cities.
“Whenever I see a call for artists where the artist selected has an opportunity to be paid, I am happy,” said Rond. “Creative’s are a part of the community and deserve the opportunity to make a living doing it.”
With more calls for artists going out, the aesthetic range of art appearing in the city is growing, and that’s a good thing.
“All of these genres of art blur lines,” added Rond. “At the end of the day, if it’s making an impact on the person experiencing it, causing pause, insight or simply a smile it’s doing its intended job.”
“We have a diverse community and that diversity should be reflected in its art,” said Tillinghast. “Also, remember, that the people who visit Columbus have a wide variety of interests and ideas about art. When they are inspired, amused or even challenged by what they see their visitor experience will be far richer and more memorable.”
Authors note: I asked each person interviewed for this story to share a personal favorite piece of artwork located in a public space. See their answers below.
Lacey Luce is a marketing, communications and events strategist for the Greater Columbus Arts Council who’s favorite piece of artwork in a public space as the Aminah Robinson mural “A Street Called Home” facing Washington Avenue.
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