GUEST COMMENTARY: Public art effectively builds host communities

2013-05-16T00:05:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Public art effectively builds host communitiesBy John Cain nwitimes.com
May 16, 2013 12:05 am  • 

Why are communities throughout our country and around the world developing large-scale outdoor art projects? There are many reasons why.

In 2005, I traveled to New York to see “The Gates” by artists Jean-Claude and Christo and was struck by the astounding number of people who had gathered to take in this phenomenal installation, consisting of 7,503 metal "gates" along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park. People traveled from all corners of the globe to take in this mesmerizing, if enigmatic, work of art, blissful in the knowledge that they wanted to be a part of it, regardless of the fact that they didn’t understand its meaning.

The installation was as much a public happening as it was a vast environmental sculpture and feat of engineering. It required more than 1 million square feet of vinyl and 5,300 tons of steel at a cost (borne exclusively by the artists) of $20 million. City officials expected tens of thousands of people to show up for the exhibition, and, by the time the 7,500 gates were taken down two weeks after they were erected, the city expected to generate $80 million in business, with $2.5 million in city taxes alone. The expectations were vastly exceeded.

New York isn’t the only place to have recognized that art can be a driving force in a community’s quality of life on several levels, including as a driver of the economy.

Even here in Northwest Indiana, the arts have long played a role in improving our quality of life. Long before there were steel mills, there were artists lured here by the natural beauty of our shoreline.

Today, large-scale public art projects have been executed in several communities.

“The Rotunda” in downtown Hammond is a permanent work erected over a decade ago at the intersection of Hohman Avenue and Rimbach Street that has served as an anchor for community activities, bringing people downtown.

Temporary but just as much fun, Highland’s ducks, Crown Point’s bulldogs, Lansing’s airplanes and County Seats, a regionwide variation on this type of project, have all delighted residents and visitors.

In Munster, a tax abatement program has long been in place for new construction projects, requiring property owners to commission original artworks to be installed on the grounds of the business or industry, where it can be enjoyed by the general public.

This is a win, whichever way you look at it. Property owners get a tax break, artists receive much-needed income and the community becomes a cultural destination, generating an influx of visitors!

And now, in Valparaiso, the next big foray into art will be a second public display of large-scale sculptures in an art walk along Cumberland Drive, running between the YMCA and Purdue North Central.

The city's Redevelopment Commission art committee headed by Laura Campbell is hosting 15 new sculptures from Midwest Sculpture Initiative in Blissfield, Mich., advancing the role the visual arts play in the quality of life and increasing economic development.

The benefits of public art are many. They are at once global and individual — providing to participants a creative outlet, positive alternatives and enrichment; stimulating in communities economic development and a sense of pride.

Public art truly is a great idea that brings people together and effectively builds communities.

John Cain is executive director of South Shore Arts. The opinions are the writer's.

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