This story is important to anyone getting involved in public art and murals. On one level, it documents the process, including the bureaucracy and committees, that take place when a city decides to move forward with a public art initiative. The story also demonstrates the deep impact of “street art.” Ann Arbor is far from Miami and Art Basel but its city planners and public art commissioners have taken notice, including the use of the terms “street art” in its language.

“Street art”  has become the buzzword for a broader, more watered-down aerosol culture that incorporates more imagery through a wider range of mediums. While the use of these mediums is not problematic by itself, the popularity of aerosol culture in every facet of  society has attracted a hipsters and the more affluent and artsy to a movement that was originated in the ghettos by black and brown youth. This influx has changed the message and context of the art, often shifting to a more “art for arts sake” philosophy for meaningless imagery. “Street Art” has become the palatable way for mainstream society to continue to absorb and assimilate the aerosol aesthetic. 

Ann Arbor public art commission meeting (Sept. 26, 2012): In this month’s main action item, public art commissioners formed a task force to explore the possibility of starting a street art program.

Connie Rizzolo Brown

Connie Rizzolo Brown shows her colleagues on the Ann Arbor public art commission a printout of AAPAC’s redesigned website. (Photos by the writer.)

John Kotarski made the proposal, explaining that street art could include anything from pedestrian benches to artistic manhole covers – similar to those that have been created in Japanese cities. The effort could involve schools and service clubs, he said, and might evolve into something as popular as the fairy doors found throughout Ann Arbor. Commissioners seemed generally supportive of the idea. The task force will do more research and make a formal proposal to AAPAC at a later date.

Commissioners also moved ahead on a new approach to getting more people involved in the selection of public art. Task forces will be formed in four quadrants of the city, using quadrants that are designated in the city master plan’s “land use elements” section: west, central, south and northeast. [.pdf map of quadrants]

Kickoff meetings for each quadrant are scheduled for October. Connie Rizzolo Brown, who’s spearheading this effort, described the goal of the first meetings as ”very gentle fact-finding missions,” as well as recruitment for potential task force members.

Also in October – on Sunday, Oct. 28 – a dedication is planned for the new mural being completed at Allmendinger Park. The work is by Ann Arbor muralist Mary Thiefels of TreeTown Murals, incorporating artwork and found objects from students and neighbors. Images from the work-in-progress are currently featured on AAPAC’s website.

Commissioners also discussed concerns about a descriptive sign planned for the Dreiseitl sculpture in front of city hall. Some commissioners feel that the proposed location for the sign detracts from the ability to enjoy the sculpture, while others expressed frustration that AAPAC had not been consulted about the sign’s location.

The meeting also included a variety of updates about projects that are underway. One major item that was not discussed was the public art millage that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot – Proposal B. Although it was alluded to on several occasions, AAPAC chair Marsha Chamberlin cautioned commissioners that they could not discuss it at the meeting. However, several commissioners are involved individually in the campaign to support the millage – B for Art. Chamberlin, for example, is hosting a dinner for the campaign in October.

At an Aug. 15 special meeting, the commission had voted to recommend that the city council place a millage on the ballot, despite voicing a range of concerns. The millage had been proposed by councilmember Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), who did not consult the arts community or AAPAC before bringing  the idea forward. The ballot proposal calls for a 0.1 mill tax for four years to support public art, temporarily replacing the current Percent for Art program. For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: “Art Commission Strategizes as Millage Looms.”

Street Art Program

John Kotarski introduced the idea of exploring a street art program by saying he knew it was sudden and might seem ambitious, but it reflected the serendipitous convergence of several things.

For one, city environmental coordinator  Matt Naud had emailed AAPAC a link to an article in Grist that highlighted an artistic approach to manhole covers in Japan. Kotarski referred to the items as “access covers,” joking that because it was Ann Arbor, they needed to be politically correct. In Japan, the covers enhance the pedestrian and bicycling experience – people make tracings of the covers, which have risen to the level of art objects. That’s a type of street art that AAPAC could spearhead.

John Kotarski

Public art commissioner John Kotarski.

Kotarski also described a recent discussion he’d had with state Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-District 53), who represents Ann Arbor. Irwin would like to see more benches in downtown Ann Arbor, and thought it was an opportunity for students to get involved in the design process, Kotarski said. That’s another aspect of street art.

So Kotarski said he and Theresa Reid were proposing to form a task force that would explore the possibility of starting a street art program. They’d need to research how such a program could engage as many residents as possible, how the design process would work, and how it would coordinate with the city’s current purchase of access covers, which are pre-cast. He also mentioned the desire to have the covers fabricated locally or regionally. Schools and service clubs could be involved, he said, adding that it could become a fun thing that could possibly become as well-known as the city’s fairy doors.

He proposed forming a task force, which would bring back a formal proposal to AAPAC for a street art program.

Street Art Program: Commission Discussion

Marsha Chamberlin pointed out that AAPAC’s strategic plan called for launching one new program in the coming year. She felt that commissioners needed to put more than one idea on the table. For example, she said, street stamping – making artistic impressions on the pavement when roads are resurfaced – might be another possible program.

Her other concern related to Kotarski’s mention of local or regional fabrication. The issue comes up frequently, she said, but the city has made clear that in the context of public art, geographic restrictions can’t be imposed on the selection of artists or fabricators.

Kotarski replied that even though they’ve committed to starting one program during the year, he thinks they could do more. The only questions should be whether they have the resources to do it, and whether it fits within AAPAC’s mission. ”I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. Kotarski also indicated that street stamping could be part of a street art program, along with access covers, benches and possibly other elements.

Chamberlin noted that this type of program could be implemented within different quadrants of the city – that was a positive. But she cautioned that the city has limited capacity, in terms of its staffing and other resources for public art.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously voted to form a task force to explore the possible creation of a street art program.