Art in the open

Nicholas Williams/Daily
Buy this photo

By Max Radwin, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published September 19, 2013

If you were in Ann Arbor this spring and summer, you might have seen a painting or two hanging around — not just in the University of Michigan Museum of Art or at the Art Fair, but on the sides of restaurants, at the Fire Department and peeking out of alleyways. For a few months, Ann Arbor was a museum all its own. Thanks to the Detroit Institute of Art’s Inside|Out program, high reproductions of Matisse, Sargent, Church and other artists featured in the DIA’s galleries decorated the city streets.

Kerrytown Market & Shops, fittingly, had on show Il Pensionante del Saraceni’s “The Fruit Vendor,” an early Baroque piece depicting a woman haggling with a man at his fruit stand. Installations of paintings like these were made possible through a partnership between the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission and the DIA. The museum approached the commission during the fall of 2012 during its search for new Michigan communities likely to have an interest in participating. Ann Arbor agreed to be one of the 13 cities to do so, and Artemsia Genileschi’s “Judith and Her Maidservant,” among six other reproductions, was installed in Ann Arbor. City residents were also given free admission to the museum during a “community weekend,” so they could see the original pieces.

While it was the AAPAC that partnered with the DIA to make this all happen — deciding where to put each piece and working with business owners during installation — it was not, in fact, the AAPAC that funded the project. A Miami-based organization dedicated to weaving “the arts into the fabric of communities,” called the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, was responsible for funding one of the first pieces of public art in Ann Arbor, since the suspension of the Percent for Art program by the Ann Arbor City Council and the public art millage’s failure to pass in the November election. Both events — as well as the Inside|Out program, which Ann Arbor residents may have unknowingly deemed a tax-funded endeavor — raised questions about public art in Ann Arbor and how it was going to take form in the future.

The death of percent for art

In 2007, the Ann Arbor City Council implemented the Percent for Art program, which required all Capital Improvement Projects funded by Ann Arbor to set aside one percent of their project construction funds for public art. Percent for Art also stipulated that, though the art did not need to be located on the site itself, it should relate in some way to the capital improvement funding source.

Originally, the AAPAC started as the non-profit Art in Public Places, an organization with the goal to raise money for public art in Ann Arbor.

“Some of the projects that were started on that dollar were the Fourth and Washington parking structure … and they also helped manage some of the smaller projects that led up to the (creation of the) public arts commission,” said Bob Miller, chair of the AAPAC.

But later, when the commission needed a more systematic way of funding public art, it turned to the Percent for Art system.

To those unfamiliar with the Percent for Art program or how public art gets from the sketchbook to your local park, here’s a brief run-through: The AAPAC has a public art ordinance that allows it to oversee public-art projects for the city of Ann Arbor, and it is responsible for the approval of all art projects as well as selecting locations and artists for those projects. Recommendations for future pieces come from the commission, though they have also surfaced from city council, city staff or resident suggestions. When the commission approves a project, it forms a task force made up of the arts community, the relevant neighborhood community and city administration, consisting of AAPAC members, among others. The task force sends out a general call to artists, and then reviews their past work and proposed goals for the project. Eventually, they narrow the applicant pool down to one. Once City Council approves the contract, the artist can begin fabrication, construction and eventually implementation of the piece.

The public-art millage proposed in the November 2012 elections would have created a three-year tax to go along with this program and could have generated an estimated $459,273 in public-art funding not just for physical installations, but for the performing arts as well. But the millage lost — 56 percent against — leading city council to suspend the Percent for Art program until spring 2013. At the time, the suspension wasn’t supposed to affect public art funding in any immediate way, as CIPs are usually scarce during the winter. Yet, to date, the program still hasn’t returned.

“There is no more Percent for Art,” Miller said. “The program is suspended, and I don’t think that it will be resurrected any time soon.”

The new program, which has not yet been tested or implemented, is supposed to extend the process from two years to as many as six, which has its benefits and disadvantages.

“The new funding mechanism bakes in projects,” Miller explained. “As in, it incorporates (public art) projects into the other potential (Capital Improvement) projects.”

The city will assess potential locations for public art on a more case-by-case basis by evaluating what future CIPs will benefit from them.

“We will be getting that list in a few months, and we will look at the Capital Improvement Projects the city is looking to undertake,” Miller said, “and we will identify the projects that we think can or will benefit from enhancement, and those enhancements mean public art.”

This buy-in time gives the AAPAC an opportunity to raise community awareness about upcoming projects.

“The most important thing is to allow the public to understand the process of how artwork is brought to the city.”

On the other hand, “baking in” projects also removes any guarantee that there will be public art at all.

“The downside for the new process is that it is totally at the mercy of the city administration and the City Council to decide if art will be placed anywhere,” said Miller. “And there are no funds allocated to arts at all until they decide there are.”

Though much is in the transition phase, the AAPAC’s attempt to involve the community in the public art process is one aspect of the new program that is already budding. The Argo Cascades, one of three project sites that was ongoing when the Percent for Art suspension was announced, has been the commission’s stepping stone for these types of improvements.

“They’re doing a lot of public outreach,” Miller said of the Argo Cascades task force. “They’ve had walk-throughs. They’ve brought the project to the attention of different committees within the city. They’ve also brought people out to the site and they’ve had online surveys. They’re trying to gather as much public input into that project as they can before they make any final decisions. I think that is a very good way to move forward with how we do projects: That’s a good model.”

City Council member Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5), who in the past has expressed a desire to give Ann Arbor residents a louder voice in the creation of public art, likes the direction the AAPAC is going.

“I saw one of the commissioners down at the farmer’s market with a clipboard trying to make sure that everybody knew about (the Argo Cascades project) and make sure everyone got a chance to meet the artists,” he said. “The art commission is trying to involve the community in making sure we’ve got art that best reflects Ann Arbor, best reflects our community.”

Uncharted waters

The Argo Cascades, between Furstenburg and Gallup Park, is a popular tubing, kayaking and paddle boarding spot for Ann Arbor residents and tourists. In April 2012, the AAPAC approved the site for a public art project with a budget of $150,000. While the Argo Cascades is one of the last three sites to receive funding through the old mechanism, the task force is trying to take a progressive approach to the process, especially in terms of community outreach. AAPAC Commissioner John Kotarski recognizes that he’s navigating somewhat uncharted waters.

“We’re kind of rebuilding the ship that’s left port,” he said.

Regardless of the funding transition, public art projects can often encounter obstacles. One of the art pieces to most recently be installed in Ann Arbor is the untitled water-based sculpture by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl on East Huron Street. The work was proposed in 2009, but wasn’t fully functional until July of 2012 because of clogged water pumps and other electrical problems.

But for the Argo Cascades, things have been moving, more or less, according to schedule. When the AAPAC sent out a call to artists — including 48 local art organizations and over 48 regional art organizations — it received more than 50 submissions.

“It was the kind of outreach we wanted to have happen,” Kotarski said. “And we took extra care to try and attract local artists.”

Since then, the artist count has been reduced to two — Jann Rosen-Queralt and a design team consisting of Mags Harries and Lajos Heder.

“We have two very quality artists that are both nationally recognized,” Kotarski said. “They work with natural materials and work with sustainable water issues. … We look forward to seeing what they come up with.”

Rosen-Queralt has been active in the art world since 1990. She teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art and has won numerous awards in and around Maryland. In 2011, she was the lead artist for a large art installation at the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Facility in Seattle.

Harries and Heder have completed more than 25 public-art installations together, though they’re both accomplished individual artists as well. Heder won international prizes with his design for Expo ’96 in Budapest. Harries’s work has been exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Harries and Rosen-Queralt have actually gone head to head before, which is bound to happen to artists who work within the same medium, and who explore similar themes in their art.

“Yeah, it’s competitive,” Harries said of contending with Rosen-Queralt. “I think in this case, Jann is a great artist and I think we’re good artists, so you’ve got two great artists who are going to think up something great for the cascades.”

Before starting work on their proposals, Rosen-Queralt, Harries and Heder were invited to visit Ann Arbor and the Argo Cascades to get a feel for the area.

“We did a little walking tour of the downtown and the college campus, and a little bit of the history and a review about our public art,” Kotarski said.

The artists also took kayaks down the cascades before meeting with residents for a meet and greet.

“(Residents) could give their input about what they think should go into the artwork and ask questions about their artwork or just about the artist,” Kotarski said.

Both artists were given a $3,000 stipend for their proposals and will return in October to present their designs to the public.

Harries wouldn’t disclose any specifics about her plans for the site or even the approach she was taking to the project, only commenting, “I want to bring something brave and specific that can happen nowhere else.”