Construction of a new public art exhibit, built along Stadium Boulevard as part of a road reconstruction project, came to a close in late May after two weeks of construction and months of planning. Titled “Leaven,” the sculpture comprises hundreds of 9-inch-by-9-inch anodized aluminum “leaves” arranged in an overlapping pattern on a stone wall.
According to Brian Brush, designer of the $100,000 project, the metal pieces gently reflect the surroundings and create different effects depending on the location of the viewer and time of day. For instance, the leaves pick up the blue sky when viewed head on, and reflect moving cars when viewed at a sharp angle.
“To see all of these effects you have to actually spend time looking at Leaven in a mindful way,” Brush wrote in an email interview. “Although the pattern and texture behavior can be easily perceived at a glance, the true beauty of Leaven's effect must be found through intimate and watchful observation – unfortunately not something that most people have much time or patience for anymore. Nevertheless artists still need to create opportunities for this to occur.”
The artist also hopes “Leaven” will create a bridge between the natural and manmade features of Stadium Boulevard. Brush said he knew the reconstruction project on Stadium Boulevard would contribute to the industrial look of the area, so the branching, sometimes chaotic pattern of the aluminum leaves is meant to remind onlookers of the wildness that existed before Stadium Boulevard’s development.
Brush’s design beat out several other proposals in a 2016 selection process spearheaded by the Ann Arbor Art Center, which Ann Arbor City Council hired for $35,000 to help find a new public art installation. The Center assembled an Artistic Advisory Committee of over a dozen community members including local artists, students, education experts, designers and other Ann Arbor residents, said Megan Winkel, Ann Arbor Art Center Exhibitions Director. Next, the group pieced together a call for entry — a list of criteria based on design requirements and limitations — and posted it online for about four weeks on various artist portals.
Megan Winkel, Ann Arbor Art Center exhibitions director, said the committee then narrowed the incoming proposals down to three options, including “Leaven.”
“They were reviewed by the Committee based on a variety of things,” Winkel said. “Is what the artist is proposing feasible — can it actually be put up? Is it something that matches the diversity, the values, of the city of Ann Arbor? And aesthetically, does it look nice — did they do something that’s interesting with the space?”
The three remaining proposals were crowdsourced via an online vote released to the public. “Leaven” won the competition, and after the Artistic Advisory Committee finalized the decision, they passed it on to the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, an advisory body to City Council. Winkel said the selection process emphasized public participation, both through the diversity of the Artistic Advisory Committee and the public vote.
“The Ann Arbor Art Center has put together a process for selection of public art that is meant to be really engaging with the public and also super transparent,” Winkel said. “Community members, stakeholders, other people from around the city besides just the Art Center are able to be part of the process.”
The Public Art Commission brought “Leaven” forward to the larger Ann Arbor City Council, which approved the proposal on July 3, 2017 as part of the Stadium Boulevard Road Reconstruction Project. Councilmembers Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4; Sumi Kailasapathy, D-Ward 1; and Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, were opposed, citing concerns about the aesthetics of the exhibition, the cost and the expense of public funds.
Chip Smith, City Council liaison to the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission said the issue of spending taxpayer money on public art has incited some disagreement among councilmembers.
“There is a school of thought here in the city that we should never fund public art with public money,” Smith said. “I don’t have any regrets for supporting public art in this process.”
According to Winkel, Ann Arbor does have a track record of controversy in terms of public art, but she believes disagreement can be valuable because it forces community members to think about art and engage in discussion.
“Ann Arbor has an interesting history with public art where not everybody is happy with it all the time, but that is actually something that I think is really nice in the process, that people are talking about art and their opinions,” Winkel said.
Public art remains on City Council’s agenda. Last February, City Council approved a list of more than 20 potential public art proposals that may accompany city capital projects scheduled over the next six years. The list comprises $2 million worth of public art, though each individual proposal must be approved by City Council before actually going into effect. In addition, the Ann Arbor Art Center just released three winning designs that will be installed on manhole covers throughout the city over an eight-year period.
Winkel said public art projects enrich the community because they encourage tourism, promote business and make the urban landscape more inspiring.
“I hope that the city continues to infuse art into regular improvement projects, because having public art in the city really does a lot for everybody,” Winkel said.
Brush hopes as the Stadium Boulevard streetscape evolves, “Leaven” will be a positive part of that change.
“Leaven isn't only a nod to the aluminum leaves it is made out of and the green leaves it was inspired by,” Brush wrote. “Leaven also means to rise up, to grow, to expand, to elevate … Leaven is a catalyzing agent in the rising up of an area of Ann Arbor. It's a positive and supportive addition to the growth and maturation of this area.”