Why Arlington’s Public Art Program doesn’t commission murals

The cement spheres of “Dark Star Park” in Rosslyn, the electric blue ribbon of “Dressed Up and Pinned” in Courthouse and the twin striped monoliths of “Echo” in the grounds of Penrose Square.

These are just a few of some 70 permanent public art projects in Arlington, commissioned for county capital improvement projects, sponsored by developers, or initiated by communities.

Made with cement, steel and stone, these permanent projects are built to last, like the “Dark Star Park”, installed in 1984. The emphasis on permanent art installations – especially those built into the major investment projects – is intentional, according to Arlington Public Art Program, a subdivision of Arlington Economic Development’s cultural affairs division.

“As long as you have me as the head of the program for Arlington County, you will have someone who will stand up for the very difficult job of incorporating public art into larger capital projects in the county.” , said Angela Adams, administrator of public art, in a recent planning committee. Meet. “It’s not the easy thing to do. Temporary public art is the easy thing to do. Murals are the easy thing to do. We don’t do murals: we help the community make their own murals.

The county views the murals, which can last a few decades if properly maintained, as temporary public art. Most recently, the program helped create the John M. Langston mural at the Sports Show by KaliQ Crosby.

The county’s emphasis on sculptures rather than murals and other temporary works was suppressed by members of the planning committee during a discussion on the county’s public art master plan, which is being put updated to reflect modern times.

After several years of community engagement and study, artistic staff drafted an update to the plan – first adopted in 2004 – which reached County Council last Saturday. Members approved a request to announce a public hearing on the updated document next month, before a vote on whether to adopt it.

“This is a strategy on how public art will improve the quality of our public spaces,” Chairman of the Board Matt de Ferranti said at the meeting. “We have each been informed about this. I think it is important.

The current focus of the public art program on sculptures and other installations, such as the illuminated bridge on Route 50 near the courthouse and the corridor of light in Rosslyn, favors the permanent over the ephemeral, quality over the amount. But it also comes at a cost, often requiring significant funding and years of planning. Additionally, artists with the reputation and skill to create such art in many cases come from out of town.

In contrast, the public art most commonly seen posted on social media these days is of a more temporary variety: Instagrammable murals and community-created installations. Cheaper and ephemeral, such art has the potential to be more ubiquitous in the city and to reflect more of the present moment and local flavor. Such is the case with a mural unveiled over the summer in the city of Vienna, a set of painted, social media-ready butterfly wings designed by a local high school graduate.

Butterfly wing fresco in Vienna (via City of Vienna / Facebook)

Public art in figures

Since the 1970s, Arlington County and private developers have produced more than 100 permanent and temporary public art works. But it was not until 2004 that a systematic approach, called the Public Art Master Plan (PAMP), was codified.

More than 25 permanent projects have been completed or are underway, while more than 30 temporary structures have been commissioned or supported since the adoption of the PAMP, the updated plan says. These are funded by the County Capital Improvement Fund and developer contributions to the Public Art Fund.

Developers have completed and commissioned more than 25 works to adorn their sites, said Public Art Program spokesperson Jim Byers, Jr. Most developers (65%) contribute to the Public Art Fund, which received 59 contributions since 2004 and now maintains a balance of $ 3 million, he said.

Their coffers go a long way, Byers said, as “developer and partner funding increases the county’s public art funding by nearly 25: 1.”

Out with the old, with the new

Despite its successes, the PAMP update says the county’s public art approach needed a new coat of paint “to support civic engagement, planning, economic development, and the creation of places.” County”.

Among other new priorities, the new plan emphasizes public development, engagement and equity and identifies two new priority corridors: Langston Blvd and Potomac Riverfront. The existing priority corridors are Rosslyn-Ballston, Richmond Highway, Columbia Pike and Four Mile Run.

Public engagement is a priority because residents seem to know little about the program, admits the plan. He calls for more programming to engage people and more accessible information on projects.

“One of the things the research has shown is that the Arlington community is not fully aware of the extent of the county’s public artistic resources,” PAMP continues. “It’s important not only to commission new artwork, but also to find ways to keep existing artwork fresh in people’s minds.

Another important point, equity, proved to be a sticking point for the Planning Commission. Some members argued that the plan needed stronger language to ensure art reaches poorer areas and more diverse artists are chosen.

Otherwise, said curator Stephen Hughes, only areas with well-resourced developers will have gorgeous art, and areas like Columbia Pike will fall behind, despite promises of permanent art.

“When you want to lobby for art in underserved communities that don’t have the resources, you actually have to redirect the resources from one section of the community to another with conscious thought, and that requires teeth in the tongue, ”he said.

Adams attributed the difficulties in integrating art into Columbia Pike’s developments to the form-based code governing the projects.

Ahead of the county council meeting, a staff report said that “language has been reinforced about the work the public art program has done in this area and how staff plan to continue their commitment to equity and diversity, especially around the diversity of themes, artists and Locations. “

The role of ephemeral art

Others have referred to temporary art as a way to reach underserved communities more quickly and to involve early-career artists.

“I don’t think we can just downplay the value of temporary art,” Planning Commissioner Elizabeth Morton said. “It is often used as an incubator to teach young artists how to work on a large scale on an expensive project. I don’t think it has to be an either-or. I don’t want to lose sight of the topicality, the nervousness, the speed, the diversity that ephemeral art can bring.

Planning Commission Chairman Jim Lantelme pointed out that murals are often community-oriented. The Halls Hill area, for example, has two murals, one telling the story of the community and the other – on renowned Langston Blvd – depicting activist John M. Langston.

“The distinction between permanent and temporary, we have to be very careful that one is not seen as inferior to the other, especially if it’s something the neighborhood wants and it improves the overall mood.” , did he declare.

Curator Sara Steinberger said temporary art installations highlight additional voices and bring art to places “where art is not as easy to get”.

Byers later told ARLnow that temporary art can achieve these ends and more.

“[Temporary art] can meet several objectives: promote interest in county policies and priorities (walking, cycling, recycling, waste reduction, etc.), disseminate public art projects more widely in the county, provide opportunities for people local artists with a wide range of practices to experiment and gain experience and demonstrate the catalytic role that public art can play in transforming the identity of a place, ”he said.

On these, the public art program acts only as a resource for business improvement districts, partnerships and other organizations and community groups undertaking these projects, he said.

In addition to the Langston mural, Byers said the public art program has supported several murals in recent years, including two on Langston Blvd: “Change Begins Inside” by David de la Mano at KH Art and Framing and “Community” by MasPaz. at the Cowboy Café.


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Kayleen C. Rice

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