The great cathedral of crisscrossing highway bridges above Main Street is a massive industrial work of art, but dangling within it — like an ornament on an iron Christmas tree — is “Skyrider,” a twisted construction that represents the many difficulties of life as public art.
Unlike artistic works that exist in the most controlled environments — lined up in expansive museum galleries, preserved and sometimes restricted by paid admission — the public realm of art aims at communal accessibility. While it may be short-lived and left out in the rain, public art becomes a visual catalyst of a much larger cultural significance.
But it's also subject to factors that can warp even the most resiliently brilliant idea, because public art relies on financing and approval and must navigate an aesthetic aisle. On the one side, there's artistic expression; on the other, public sensibilities. The public is paying for it, after all.
With that in mind, does public art have a chance of being any good? And does it make a difference if it's public money or private money that supports it?
Richmond's highest level of sanctioned public art comes from the juried approval of the Public Art Commission. Using a 1 percent allocation from the City's Capital Improvement Budget for new or renovation construction projects that cost more than $250,000, the commission has been responsible for many recognizable works — including the bronze sculpture, “Cradle,” at the Richmond Ambulance Authority, and the five-paneled mural, “The Conjuror Revealed,” in the Landmark Theater.
As with most government-funded programs, the Public Art Commission often finds itself stifled by its own lengthy critique and monetary approval process.
Philadelphia fosters one of the nation's largest public arts initiatives, producing more than 2,800 murals throughout the city and attracting 8,000 to 10,000 tourists each year through the efforts of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Richmond has been learning from its northern sister as it establishes its own public projects, all with the purpose of establishing a new kind of dialogue in the capital city.
The hanging sculpture across from Main Street Station, “Skyrider,” took several years to earn its place under the highway, from the commission accepting proposals in 2000 to the moment the finished work was installed in 2003. The commission had to whittle 129 applications to a single finalist, John Newman, whose design had to then survive engineering and aesthetic revamping. How would it look at dawn, noon and dusk? At what angle would it best be placed? Commissioners even had to decide the details of the sculpture's proper lighting and landscaping.
With all these filters to pass through, the work may not be the same thing originally laid out on paper. Perhaps the most important filter, though, is money.
“There's never enough money for art in this world,” says Sally Bowring, who teaches painting at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked the past six years as the commission's public-art coordinator. While she says “it's great when we can get a sizable budget,” Bowring acknowledges the financial backing is not always there.
As the commission explores new avenues to lessen the hang-ups of the monetary bureaucracy, advocates around the city are finding more independent means of displaying art in the public realm, placing public art not on city property, but on privately owned spaces, such as the Jonny Z mural on the side of Joe's Inn on Shields Avenue.
Art 180's executive director, Marlene Paul, has overseen the mural and other public art projects. “It's hugely affirming and confidence-boosting and unbelievable to have someone condone you painting on a wall or installing a sculpture on a busy road that's going to be seen by passersby,” she says. “I think the more people see murals and public art projects unfolding and see what they can contribute both aesthetically and culturally … I hope the easier it will be for more of those examples of public art to happen.”
Following the ideas in Philadelphia is Diane Hayes, a Richmond artist who after taking part in a number of different public art works has worked with the Cultural Arts Division of the Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities to establish her own mural arts program six months ago. She's been working to raise money for the organization's first commissioned mural to be painted for the North Side's YMCA in late spring.
“I'm very interested in art work that speaks to the community and that the community can be a part of,” says Hayes, whose goal is to raise roughly $12,000 for the project. “It helps a community identify with time and space. Especially with neighborhoods that are going through transition. It helps them take ownership and become proud of their community.”
Ultimately, the city's current public art coordinator, Vaughn Garland says, the best kind of impact that takes places is when Richmond's two schools of thought — private and city-run public art — work together and balance one another's interest in changing the city's cultural atmosphere.
“We're trying to figure out a way now of pulling all of these things, all of these resources, together to make it a much more lively environment and not so separated,” he says. “It's allowing the two to work independently, [but] with each other.”