From downtown buildings awash in spray paint to sculptures erected under the watchful eye of the City Council, Ann Arbor is saturated in colors and ideas. Public art is the pulsating beat of the troubadours who stake out the Diag in warm weather. It’s the artful bike racks installed by the city that adorn State Street and it’s the spontaneous poetry scrawled in Graffiti Alley. Public art is for the people, by the people.
But that broad definition doesn’t really fit. And the meaning of public art itself is constantly being redefined, challenged and debated.
The Ann Arbor government has recognized the need for public art: The Ann Arbor Public Arts Commission (AAPAC) is dedicated to erecting inoffensive works of public art throughout the city, in various mediums.
Some small businesses have ordered conventional, city-approved murals to be painted on the sides of their buildings. Yet other public art is more organic and oftentimes more subversive — done under the cover of darkness, spray-paint can in hand, with lookouts watching for city authorities. Cathy Gendron, a member of AAPAC, even said The Rock that students have covered in splashes of paint for years is a form of public art.
Mark Tucker, a lecturer for the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program and a champion of public art, sees art everywhere — even on Football Saturdays.
“The whole atmosphere is a creative ritual, from the costuming to the tailgates to the intermission show, with amazing ballet-inspired showmanship and awe-inspiring physicality on the playing field,” Tucker said. “(It’s) not unlike what you would see if you were to witness what goes into the fabrication of a heroic piece of sculpture or a grueling theatrical rehearsal.”
Public art is not just about aesthetics — it’s an integral part of life. And according to Tucker, public art reflects our humanity and has an impact on the shape and feel of our society.
The One Percent
The Ann Arbor City Council has recognized the importance of public art even in times of economic free-fall. Staffed by artists and art enthusiasts, AAPAC acts as a vanguard for pushing works of public art. The Percent for Public Art program was created in 2007 by an ordinance requiring one percent of the cost of any publicly funded improvement project to go toward public art.
AAPAC is in charge of commissioning those one-percent projects. According to Gendron, the commission collects feedback from the community and the City Council, and generates its own ideas in order to figure out what art project to break ground on next. AAPAC tries to be democratic with its decisions, but there are a lot of stringent rules governing what kinds of public art can be funded by the city.
AAPAC has facilitated quite a few of Ann Arbor’s more visible pieces of public art, including the recently revealed bronze sculpture outside the Municipal Center. The wall of bronze is dotted with blue glass pearls that brighten up when they collect storm water flowing from the Center. The water feature wasn’t an organic add-on from the German designer of the sculpture, Herbert Dreiseitl. Rather, money was set aside for a public water project, and in order to comply with the 2007 ordinance, the resulting public artwork had to incorporate water.
In many ways, AAPAC is limited by the City Council in what it can do. Multiple voices are involved in every step, from brainstorming to deciding where to put a piece. City Council Liaison Tony Derezinski described the slow process — coming up with an idea and then waiting for the idea to meet the city’s criteria of “careful, and very prudent” before being unveiled.
The reactions to the Percent for Public Art program have been mixed. AnnArbor.com posted an article in September 2011 that quoted various council members criticizing the program for only creating two art pieces in four years. Some members even questioned the value of the Percent Program. A number of random commenters echoed similar sentiments, bemoaning the uselessness of public art.
Tucker believes public funding for art is just as important as funding for other societal services.
“Why don’t we recognize that artists are as important to the fabric of our community as any firefighter, police, teacher or construction worker?” Tucker said. “My guess is that each of us has at one time or another been deeply moved by a poem, a theatrical performance or perhaps an amazing concert. Why do we always take this for granted? Is it simply because we don’t understand the time, expense, talent, education and dedication required to bring a piece of artwork to life?”
Tucker has claimed a vote for public art is a vote for all arts, and that it shouldn’t be viewed as an extra expense. It is a necessary “cultural value” that we as a town have deemed important enough to invest in. He added that Ann Arbor as a whole must value art and that a few anonymous commentators do not represent the voice of the entire city.
Tucker also said that a city that values art as much as Ann Arbor does shouldn’t censor, but instead value, all kinds of creative expression.
“To (censor art) is to cut off our own heads,” he said.
Derezinski also works to combat the many rules governing what public art pieces can be created. He recognizes the pull public art can have on creating economic prosperity for Ann Arbor and to retain the city’s youth population.
“We have to find other funds to keep the homeless in warm places and other very needy projects, but the art money is a trying thing in tough times,” Derezinski said. “Here you really are defining what you are and we can’t give up our core nature of being both a compassionate city but also a city that has a strong devotion to the arts. I think those restrictions were wisely put in so we wouldn’t diminish our efforts given the twists and turns of the economy.”
But it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, in which the community’s decision to create public artwork will cause other aspects of city governance to suffer.
“It’s more helpful to take a long-term look at public art,” Gendron said. “Look at the parks — it enhances our quality of life, it draws people to the city, it creates civic pride and a place for people to gather.”
Blurring the lines
Even though AAPAC has undoubtedly had an immense impact on the Ann Arbor cultural landscape, not all public art is commissioned by the city. What about the technicolored Graffiti Alley? Or the murals splashed across the bridge down by the Huron River?
There is no solid definition for public art; maybe it’s anything that moves you.
According to an October article in The Michigan Daily, the Ann Arbor Police Department plans to start cracking down on graffiti and will enforce the 2009 ordinance that states business owners have to remove graffiti within the proper timeframe or face fines.
But in the case of graffiti artist Antonio Agee, who goes by Shades, whether his art is illegal depends on the context. Though he started by painting his Detroit neighborhood at night, Shades’s art can now be seen all over the world, on the streets and in galleries. So where is the line when defining public art versus scribbles that deface a building? And who decides where to draw it?
“At some point, graffiti is only graffiti, that’s a subjective thing,” Derezinski said. “There was a Supreme Court justice that once said about obscenity, ‘I can’t define it but I know it when I see it,’ and you’ve got to give some latitude. Some of the spontaneous art is very creative.”
Self-proclaimed “graff artist” Shades claims graffiti art will always have a stigma attached to it, but when he was growing up, street art had nothing to do with reckless vandalism. Shades’s work these days is still graff art, but now people hang it above their mantelpieces rather than just seeing it in the streets. First, someone was moved by it, and then Shades was able to make himself into a successful artist. From his beginnings of tagging his neighborhood, he is now in a position to put his mark on the world.
“Graffiti started out as beautifying the neighborhoods,” Shades said. “It wasn’t anything of destruction — all of us started doing painting in our areas because we were living in blighted areas. … That’s what it’s all about, it’s the bringing the neighborhood up, not to bring it down.”
Shades has done work in Ann Arbor. In 2010 he was commissioned by the Northern United Brewing Company to paint a 200-foot mural on the back of Grizzly Peak Brewing Company. Though Shades said he had to cut through a lot of red tape in order for the mural to be approved by the city, he believes it “broke a lot of chains” for street art in Ann Arbor. He acknowledges his type of “street art” is not as accepted by most people in Ann Arbor because it’s a university town and therefore more image-conscious.
“They always say Ann Arbor is very liberal,” Shades said. “But it’s not — it’s highly conservative.”
Derezinski recalled when he studied law here in the turbulent ’60s, a time many students consider the height of free expression in the United States. Maybe there is space for all types of public art in Ann Arbor — there is, after all, historical precedent.
“There was a tremendous amount of unrest, and it was seen a passionate part of a community of ideas,” Derezinski said. “Ann Arbor is a tolerant place … it’s that weighing good, true expression with propriety.”
It isn’t clear what graffiti counts as art. Shades himself said he has to defend his medium against detractors.
“(The city wants) to be hip, they want be down, and it’s slowly, surely coming around,” Shades said. “But it’s a college town, they want to keep it clean, pristine for you guys. You can try to knock on their door and if they let you in, just tag the bathroom and get the fuck out.”
Tucker values all art, even if he doesn’t like all art equally. He founded the annual spectacle known as Festifools. Each spring, Main Street becomes crowded with giant puppets made by students with help from community members. Though the artwork is temporary and shifts each year, Tucker said the march of puppets is still public art — despite its apparent impermanence, the event’s annual nature makes it permanent public art.
Maybe defining public art is dangerous. Tucker said that once we start deciding what counts as art, we risk stifling a vital component in our society. But if Ann Arbor is to solidify its reputation as a creative community, it has to be open to discourse on how to integrate public art into the city, whatever “public art” may be.