December 14, 2017

The Art of the Matter | Library by Design, Spring 2016

Why does art in libraries matter? Erinn Batykefer of the Library as Incubator Project (and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker) cites public art’s role in promoting creativity. “Visible art in the library space, whether through gallery shows, public art or performance, or hands-on workshops, is incredibly important in terms of the ‘incubator library’—a space where the right conditions for creative thought and new ideas are protected and promoted,” she tells LJ. “It serves as a visible representation of the connection among information and creativity and innovation…making the library a visible place where creativity is valued and nurtured.” She adds, “Every library, stripped to its barest mission, seeks to connect people with information. Art is information—the product of a creative process and the process itself.” Batykefer also cites the importance of exposing the whole community to art, as opposed to just those few who seek it out, as in a gallery setting. More important, she also says that art in the library, by placing it in the context of learning, situates it as an attainable skill “rather than the popular vision of artists having a special talent that they don’t work at or develop and that others cannot learn.”

On the plaza outside the Main Library in Palo Alto, CA, six sculptures made from crowdsourced community text change color in response to patrons’ touch. Danielle Wyckoff’s Surroundings in Park City Library, UT.  Palo Alto photo ©Cesar Rubio; Surroundings photo by Nicholas Swan

Top: On the plaza outside the Main Library in Palo Alto, CA, six sculptures made from crowdsourced community text change color in response to patrons’ touch. Bottom: Danielle Wyckoff’s Surroundings in Park City Library, UT.
Palo Alto photo ©Cesar Rubio; Surroundings photo by Nicholas Swan

Salt Lake County Libraries (SLCL) director Jim Cooper makes a strong case for public art as core to the library mission. “It creates that opportunity for dialog, exploration, for greater understanding of the significance of the place. Those are all important things to us, why we think public art is important and worth funding,” says Cooper.

The Public Collection at Indianapolis Public Library (IPL) uses art to promote literacy even more literally than many book- and word-themed library art projects do. It consists of artist-designed book share stations, not unlike Little Free Libraries, placed around the city.

Developed by Rachel M. Simon with support from the Herbert Simon Family Foundation, it is managed in partnership with the Central Indiana Community Foundation and Mindy Taylor Ross of Art Strategies LLC. The collection’s stated goals are improving literacy, fostering a deeper appreciation of the arts, and raising awareness for educational justice in the Indianapolis community. The Public Collection has more intensive maintenance than most, since the collections within the book share stations must be kept up indefinitely. That’s where the library comes in. It has committed as a partner to donate the books, ensuring an ongoing supply throughout the two-year project, which began in 2015. Library staff manage and maintain the individual collections, stocking the stations on a weekly basis with titles for “diverse audiences and age groups,” using books donated to its library book sale area. As of April 24, 16,352 books had been distributed through the stations. And, according to Jon Barnes, IPL communications specialist, that’s just the beginning: “We will increase the number of artist-created public sites from nine to 13 in the near future.”

In addition to library-specific goals for cities (and, by extension, city libraries), the Project for Public Spaces says expenditures on public art projects can serve civic purposes beyond beautification by highlighting and publicizing initiatives, missions, and objectives; communicating important information to the public; contributing to the community’s acceptance of a plant or facility; and increasing the public’s recognition of the important work provided by that agency or department.

Nashville Public Library’s new Bellevue branch is a perfect example of how public art can be used to promote acceptance of a site and be responsive to public feedback.

Explains Anne-Leslie Owens, public art project coordinator for the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, “The Bellevue Branch Library is a bit unique in that the opportunity to have public art in the library’s interior came in the final stages of designing the new library. At public meetings hosted by the library, neighborhood residents expressed concern for the hackberry trees that would have to be removed for construction. Together, Metro Arts along with the library and architect identified Brenda Stein, a wood turner and Bellevue resident, as an artist for a direct public art commission using that hackberry wood.”

REFLECTING NATURE Art that echoes the local environment in subject or material brings the outside in. At Nashville PL’s Bellevue Branch, artist Brenda Stein (top) made use  of a removed tree in her sculpture Rise Above (bottom).  Top photo courtesy of Brenda Stein; Rise Above photo By Aerial Innovations of TN, Inc.

REFLECTING NATURE Art that echoes the local environment in subject or material brings the outside in. At Nashville PL’s Bellevue Branch, artist Brenda Stein (top) made use
of a removed tree in her sculpture Rise Above (bottom).
Top photo courtesy of Brenda Stein; Rise Above photo by Aerial Innovations of TN, Inc.

In contrast, says Owens, most public art projects at Nashville libraries develop from routine meetings between Metro Arts and library staff to determine possible locations for public art. With input from the library, Metro Arts sets draft budgets, creates a project time line, and determines an artist selection method for a particular site. A library staff member serves as the site sponsor on the five- to nine-member citizen selection panel. Short-listed artists visit the proposed artwork site and meet with the library representative, architects, and other members of the design team. Once an artist is selected, library staff work closely with Metro Arts from design development to the dedication event.

Titled Rise Above, Stein’s suspended sculpture features birds and leaves above the circulation desk, tech commons, and children’s area, designed to symbolize “community resiliency and the limitless possibilities that libraries represent.”

A second tribute to the sacrificed hackberry tree is the sculpture Great Beginnings, a steel and dichroic piece by Beverly Stucker Precious, placed on the library’s lawn. The leaves have first lines from books, which were selected by the community, woven throughout.

According to Katherine Bryant, branch manager for Bellevue, “The community’s response to the art has been one of joy and gratitude—more than a couple of patrons have been moved to tears upon learning their favorite tree was transformed into a permanent art installation. One patron was so moved, that she wrote a short story about the tree and the art.”

Finding funding

By far the majority of libraries contacted for this article said their public art, particularly major, newly constructed pieces, is funded by a percent for art (PFA) program. (Smaller, preexisting pieces such as paintings are more likely to be given by private donors.) Such initiatives set aside, by law, one percent of building projects’ budgets for public art. They began in 1934, when the Section of Painting and Sculpture in the U.S. Department of the Treasury started following a policy requiring one percent of the cost of federal buildings to be applied toward art and decoration. In 1959, Philadelphia adopted the first such municipal ordinance in the country. Today, many municipalities and counties, more than half of all states, and the federal government all run PFA programs, with the percentage in question ranging from half a percent to two percent. While primarily aimed at public development, some local programs require it of private, non­residential construction projects as well.

While there are local variations, Salt Lake City’s public art is a good example of a typical process for pieces funded through a PFA program. As part of a larger county initiative, a committee of citizens is joined by representatives of the host site to issue the call for proposals, set any parameters such as the topic, and winnow down the candidates to be interviewed in person before a final choice is made.

However, not all PFA programs are equally effective. According to the Center for Art Law, “while some public art laws have flourished, like the one in New York City, others have floundered and never gained a strong foothold in the community, like the one in Pittsburgh.” One main feature of a PFA law that affects its ability to succeed is whether the law creates an automatic set-aside for public art or whether the funding must be actively requested. The latter is much less likely to be enforced.

Beyond percent for art, the Project for Public Spaces also suggests joint public/private sector endeavors, developer participation, and local funding sources as methods of public art funding. Around the country, says the Project’s website, the latter have included foundation grants, neighborhood appeals, taxes on hotel/motel stays, sales tax, proceeds from the sale of city land, and even parking meter revenue. The Project also recommends taxing large-scale events and festivals to pay for art and having city council members fund projects within their districts. Potential partners include historical societies and commissions, local companies (including locally based branches of national corporations), and utilities, as well as the more obvious arts councils and advisory boards, museums, and art centers.

Local material

One way to promote civic pride and engagement—and increase the odds of a favorable reception—is through art that reflects the local community. Though the call for submissions is nationwide, many of SLCL’s art pieces are composed of local materials, including salt, and reflect the local community symbolically as well, such as the River of Words at the West Jordan Branch, which not only represents the meandering of the Jordan River but also is made up of words and names taken from local history. The artists presented an initial selection, and the county art committee chose from among them those that it felt would “have some significance to the public.”

Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML), OH, hired artist Virginia Overton to commission a sculptural installation for display outside the renovated Main Library. While it’s not done yet—the commission runs through December—the concept is set: intertwining “the history of the library with that of the city, its citizens, and the materials of urban infrastructure. Among her ideas is to create a work that expresses the relationship of the Main Library to its branch locations,” the library said in a statement. Overton relies on salvaged materials; in this case, much of the salvage will come from the renovation of the Main Library itself.

THE POWER OF WORDS (top–bottom): Indianapolis PL’s public art project has a literacy angle, with installations in White River State Park. El Bosque at the Encino Branch of the San Antonio PL. Cedar Rapids PL’s Public Writing project, with vinyl text placed onto the library windows. Indianapolis Kiosk photo courtesy of the Indianapolis PL; El Bosque Photo courtesy of San Antonio PL; Public Writing, Public Libraries photo by Amanda Eldred, Cedar Rapids PL

THE POWER OF WORDS (top–bottom): Indianapolis PL’s public art project has a literacy angle, with installations in White River State Park. El Bosque at the Encino Branch of the San Antonio PL. Cedar Rapids PL’s Public Writing project, with vinyl text placed onto the library windows. Indianapolis Kiosk photo courtesy of the Indianapolis PL; El Bosque Photo courtesy of San Antonio PL; Public Writing, Public Libraries photo by Amanda Eldred, Cedar Rapids PL

“We want each piece to activate the space around it…help deepen our customers’ appreciation for the community it’s in…and expose young minds to aspirational works of art,” Ben Zenitsky, marketing and communications specialist for CML, tells LJ.

The material used in Cedar Rapids Public Library (CRPL), IA, is local in another sense: not the supplies but the stories. CRPL partnered with the Grin City Collective, based in Grinnell, IA, to make stories literally the first thing the public sees when they view the library. Grin City’s artist in residence program’s 2015 project called Public Writing, Public Libraries involved installing vinyl text on the windows of libraries.

Public writings, including fiction and nonfiction, were created by four authors and installed in 12 libraries. Most of the pieces were not yet published before the project; some were written specifically for each library or town. The piece in the central Cedar Rapids building is the biggest, reproducing about 2,000 words across an estimated 250 square feet of window space at the front of the library.

Initially the piece was only guaranteed to stay up through summer 2015, but, says Amber Mussman, CRPL community relations manager, people “love it so much we haven’t taken it down. The response by the public was tremendous. They love the way the light filters in the window through the words and that the story has to be read by coming inside the building. It’s a great way to surprise the public with art. And the stories at each library are reflective of their community.”

The art was free to the library; costs were covered by supporters of the Grin City Collective, which, ­Mussman says, is looking to expand the project to additional ­libraries.

Putting the public in public art

The new Encino Branch Library in San Antonio incorporated the public into its creative process through text selection. El Bosque, an illuminated, aluminum sculpture for the side patio, was designed by artists Joe O’Connell and Blessing Hancock. It represents abstracted storybook pages interwoven within a forest. “The text used in the artwork was submitted by community members, referencing their favorite materials found in the San Antonio Public Library collection,” says Marcie Hernandez, public information officer, San Antonio Public Library. The artwork used these phrases as an abstract word cloud. Commissioned by Public Art San Antonio, the piece was budgeted at $100,000.

DIMENSIONAL ART Left: Unbound, an interactive art piece at the Chapel Hill PL, NC, features glass portals leading to local submissions transferred to video. Right: A detail of Paper Cloud, “an aerial sculpture” by George Peters and Melanie Walker, hints at the piece’s flow through Salt Lake County’s West Jordan Library. Unbound photo by Daniel Siler, Town of Chapel Hill, NC; Paper Cloud photo by Rebecca T. Miller

DIMENSIONAL ART Left: Unbound, an interactive art piece at the Chapel Hill PL, NC, features glass portals leading to local submissions transferred to video. Right: A detail of Paper Cloud, “an aerial sculpture” by George Peters and Melanie Walker, hints at the piece’s flow through Salt Lake County’s West Jordan Library. Unbound photo by Daniel Siler, Town of Chapel Hill, NC; Paper Cloud photo by Rebecca T. Miller

Brilliance, also by O’Connell and Hancock, is a grouping of site-specific sculptures on the plaza between the Palo Alto, CA, Main Library and Arts Center. They’re composed of multilingual phrases collected from the community, cut out of steel, and welded together in a variety of lantern shapes, much like El Bosque. However, Brilliance includes a further aspect of public input: each is illuminated by a touch-sensitive interior LED, so patrons can change colors and shadows in real time. The six sculptures, each approximately 5′ square, cost $200,000. They were commissioned by the City of Palo Alto Public Art Program and completed in 2014. The complete list of the crowdsourced text used for Brilliance can be seen online.

Chapel Hill Public Library, NC, features an artwork that it calls “for, about, and by the people” of the community by media artist Erik Carlson. Titled Unbound, the piece comprises four cantilevered, wedge-shaped panels with surfaces of etched glass. Subtle graphics within the panels reference different modes of recording information: cursive, Morse code, shorthand, and binary code. Convex lenses strategically placed on the panels are based on Braille characters—the first digital language—and also contain a specific message.

Through glass portals viewers will see, in random order, family recipes, stories, movies, menus, school papers, photos, and even love letters submitted by the people of Chapel Hill displayed on a series of hidden video monitors behind the panels. These were gathered through scanning sessions, personal meetings, an online portal, and social media. The artist also spent several weeks touring the area, taking photographs, researching archives, and speaking with “all sorts of people, from historians and school­children, to folks on the street,” the library said in a ­statement.

“The library itself is a highly interactive space that reflects the community and has really become a destination,” notes CHPL director Susan Brown. “We are incredibly excited to unveil this piece that is also interactive and community-based, and we are certain that it will become a destination in and of itself.”

Unbound is funded by the town’s PFA program, and the committee that selected Carlson from a pool of 235 applicants included members of the Public Arts Commission, town council, and library and town staff, as well as members of the local arts community.

Danielle Wyckoff’s Surroundings, installed in the entry hall of the newly renovated Park City Library (PCL), UT, features panels bearing texts about Park City that Wyckoff collected from local residents through distributing postcards and walking around town with a digital recorder. She also visited the Park City Museum and received copies of old handwritten accounts by miners from the turn of the 20th century. The texts make up an image that references the mountains that surround Park City. Recycled metal discs have been polished and hung in front of the panels, echoing both the area’s silver mining history and its changeable weather. The piece was submitted as part of an RFP process undertaken by the Park City Public Art Advisory Board. As with most of the art in this article, it was funded by a PFA set-aside.

“The public has enjoyed the art and, in particular, the representation of our mountains and history,” PCL director Adriane Herrick Juarez told LJ. “That the artist collected stories from the community created a great deal of engagement.”

Top: Monument to Time, by Ilan Averbuch, is on display at Salt Lake County Library Services’ Herriman branch. Bottom: Cloud, at Dixie State University library, St. George UT, is made of blank journals students can check out and write in. Monument To Time photo courtesy of Salt Lake County Library Services; Cloud photo courtesy of Dixie State University

Top: Monument to Time, by Ilan Averbuch, is on display at Salt Lake County Library Services’ Herriman branch. Bottom: Cloud, at Dixie State University library, St. George UT, is made of blank journals students can check out and write in. Monument To Time photo courtesy of Salt Lake County Library Services; Cloud photo courtesy of Dixie State University

While most large-scale public art takes the form of a sculpture, mural, or mobile, some are outside the box. The San Francisco Public Library installed a “sound sculpture” by artist Bill Fontana at the North Beach Branch Library titled Sonic Dreamscape. Commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission at a cost of $89,500 and funded through the city’s two percent for art program, the piece will broadcast outside the library building. This artwork, too, seeks to embody the local community through contributions: in this case, it will broadcast sounds collected from the neighborhood such as the clinking glass and silverware at local cafés, squawking Telegraph Hill parrots, church bells chiming, and the reading of a poem by ­Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The final mix changes over time.

Yet another example of crowdsourcing is more global in scope. For the Glen Oaks branch of New York’s Queens Library, artist Janet Zweig created a transparent, three-dimensional, two-sided moving display LED sculpture, North of the North Pole. Commissioned by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs PFA program, the piece features unanswerable questions from philosophers around the world, gathered via an online query. In addition to metal fabrication, electronics design and engineering, project management, and photography, the piece is probably one of the few to credit a philosophy ­consultant.

Perhaps taking the participatory aesthetic to its logical end is the Wolf Creek Library, a branch of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. The branch hosts Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier’s tree sculpture Strength of Heart: A Journey Project for the Community at Wolf Creek. Not only did the artist research local history, conduct interviews, and gather mementos from the community, but rather than filtering community contributions solely through the lens of a single artist’s interpretation, the project includes art created by members of the community in collaboration. As part of the process, residents gathered photographs of ancestors, scanned them, printed them on fabric, and quilted them together. “The Journey Projects are informed by ancient African notions of ancestry, storytelling, quilting, masquerade, and performance and uses ancestral memory along with collaboration to create permanent art installations for communities that include personal and private documents, oral histories, and photographs. The community is central to the overall structure of the project,” the artist explained in a statement.

Cloud, at Dixie State University’s (DSU) library and commons in St. George, UT, allows the public to enter its own input, with no filtering at all. Christian Moeller’s artwork comprises a 28’w x 22’h bookshelf filled with books whose bindings form a picture of a cloud—symbolic of the digital cloud of information. The pages of the books are blank and can be checked out as journals.

“Moeller’s Cloud has been a magnificent addition to our lobby area,” Richard Paustenbaugh, dean of the DSU library, tells LJ. “We have received feedback from students and visitors about how they are drawn to it. Many have also expressed surprise to discover that it is also an inter­active installation. Here is a quote from one of our students that was written on one of the notebooks: ‘I realized I will be okay. Just this calm feeling came over me that everything will work out. Having a disability myself may not be easy. But to limit myself is not in favor…. I can only go up.’ ”

When Art Flops

Nothing as emotionally powerful as art can be universally liked. Reaction to Salt Lake County Libraries’ (SLCL) public art is mostly positive, says Director Jim Cooper, but, of course, there are some people, he says, who say, “What the heck is that?”

Controversies over public art, in libraries or out, are not uncommon, particularly when the work in question tackles hot-button topics such as religion, politics, bigotry, or sexuality—or any combination of them. But not every controversy is about social issues—sometimes it’s simply a matter of a community not warming to a particular piece. For example, in Boulder, CO, the city reversed course on a piece planned for the outside of the library, which would have spelled out the word YES!

ljx160502webLBDartside1The selection committee, which included members of the library commission, the arts commission, a local artist, an arts professional, and the architect for the main library renovation, followed the city’s Interim Policy on Public Arts. Subsequent public blowback—more than 100 complaints saying no to YES!—made clear that the existing process didn’t include enough community input. So the city scrapped both the art and the policy and went back to the drawing board.

Matt Chasansky, manager of the City of Boulder’s Office of Arts & Culture, says the experience led the city council to the conclusion that before it could commission a major piece, the city needed to have a communitywide conversation about the value of public art. It held a series of engagement programs, ranging from a primer on what public art programs are to “a real fun event called the good or bad public art slide show.”

Chasanksy explains that the slide show brought forward the point that public art is necessarily not going to be to everyone’s taste. “The communities that have great public art programs are the ones that understand that they may not like this piece or that piece, but they like having public art around. They like having the conversations,” says Chasanksy.

After conducting research and reaching out to more than 2,000 people, the city concluded that it should expand the conversation to all culture in Boulder. The result is a nine-point combined vision and strategic plan, one of which is public art.

“We’ve got a road map on how public art could unfold in supporting the community, giving people a strong voice in how public art happens, and giving us the tools we need to create a strong diverse public art experience in Boulder that people will talk about nationwide,” says Chasansky.

With the funding from YES! still needing to be spent on public art, Boulder decided that instead of another single big project it would investigate the possibilities. The result is a soon- to-be-announced series of temporary projects called experiments in public art whose goal it is to foster the conversation about all the things that public art can do.

The city will work with the Carnegie Branch Library for Local History to document the effort.

“We’re not only documenting the piece of artwork; it is also how people react, what are the interactions people have, and what are the conversations that spring up that might lead us down different paths in the future,” says Chasansky. The experimental pieces will appear all over the city, including in and around the main library, he adds. “Given that the whole experience began with the YES! project, which was based around the library, it’s important that we anchor people back to the beginning of the conversation.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. An art professor once taught me that the purpose of public art is to let the people who pass through the space know that they matter. While this article focuses on larger pieces of art, even a small library with limited resources can make an impact through the thoughtful use of art in its spaces. Art can create a unifying element in an eclectic space or create interest in an otherwise uniform space. It can create mood and invite thought. It can be a means for participation. Public art doesn’t have to be a gigantic lawn sculpture… It can be a series of paintings by a local artist, a quilt designed especially for your space by local artisans, an installation of tiles painted by community members, or a small sculpture nestled in the garden. Thanks for addressing this important and sometimes overlooked avenue for connecting with our communities and helping everyone feel welcome in our spaces.