After decades of underinvestment, a city-led public-art renaissance is afoot in Columbus.
You're not alone in Genoa Park. Stroll through the small tree-lined hillock between COSI and the Scioto riverbank, and you'll see them. Two deer. Lounging. One is a buck, perched pensively near the science museum. The other is a doe, off to the buck's right, sprawled beneath the trees. She's on her backside, propped up by her arms (er, hooves?), hind legs spread, ears perked. It's unlikely you'll return her inviting gaze for more than a few seconds without laughing-which is the whole point.
The deer, of course, are not real. They're city-commissioned clay sculptures, which, until last year, was something that hadn't been done in Columbus for decades.
For longer than most city officials can remember, the business of conceptualizing, financing and installing public artworks has been left to private enterprise, says Lori Baudro, project coordinator with the city's planning division. This may have changed for good in February when Mayor Michael B. Coleman announced the creation of the Columbus Public Art Program, an executive order requiring that, moving forward, no less than $250,000 be allocated annually to public art projects within city limits. The whimsical "Scioto Lounge" deer, installed in late September by New Mexico-based artist Terry Allen, is one in a handful of recent projects lifting the face of the city.
"For once, we have a concentration of attention on [public art]," says Baudro, who works in tandem with the Columbus Art Commission (CAC), a volunteer, seven-member body appointed by the mayor, to approve city art projects. "From the Department of Development to parks and rec to city council, we now have a more efficient way in which we can address things, whether it be restorations or installations."
Baudro, CAC chair Diane Nance and Jami Goldstein, vice president of marketing for the Greater Columbus Arts Council, say the seed for the mayor's executive order was planted in 2012 with Finding Time, a series of temporary public installations commemorating the city's bicentennial. The project, funded mostly by Ohio State University, was led by professor and CAC member Malcolm Cochran, known for his "Field of Corn (with Osage Oranges)" installation (better known as "Cornhenge") at Sam and Eulalia Frantz Park in Dublin.
Waves made by Finding Time are still being felt-and seen-around the city, by way of projects like Bold Booths!, which reimagines parking lot toll booths.
"The project is about taking underutilized spaces around Columbus, like the fair share of surface parking lots, and trying to do something unexpected," says Beth Blostein, an Ohio State architecture professor spearheading the project with Bart Overly, her partner at Blostein/Overly Architects. "Those booths are fairly bleak little places to work. We want to make them something more special."
The first booth, "Coney Island," an angular 15-foot structure crafted from hard-coated polystyrene foam, is scheduled to replace the existing booth near the Southern Theatre later this month. In conjunction with the installation, Blostein and Overly will host Drivebys, an exhibition showcasing concepts for five additional booths around the city, at the Columbus Idea Foundry, 5 to 8 p.m. Oct. 2.
Also adding momentum was the Columbus Crossroads project, a two-year, $200 million collaboration between the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the City of Columbus to reduce congestion at interstates 71 and 670 and build the Long Street bridge to reconnect the King-Lincoln District with Downtown.
In unprecedented fashion, ODOT appointed Larry Winston Collins, a Columbus College of Art and Design graduate, to design the "Cultural Wall" now adorning the bridge. Collins worked with local photographer Kojo Kamau and Bettye J. Stull, a former cultural arts director at the King Arts Complex, to create dozens of 4-by-8-foot backlit panels displaying key figures in the neighborhood's history, like former city council president Jerry Hammond and author and illustrator James Thurber.
Goldstein says the project, completed this summer, is a model for future public-art collaborations around the city. "Not only were the artists selected passionate about the neighborhood, but the turnout at [the bridge's] dedication is a testament in and of itself how much the neighborhood welcomed that project.
"Money is definitely a big part of [public art]," she continues, "but it's the willingness on the part of the neighborhoods and partners involved that makes something happen."
Since 2012, the art commission and city council have sought public-art funding almost exclusively from the Riverfront Vision Plan, established by the city in 1998 to develop a 9-mile stretch along the Scioto and Olengtangy rivers. This loose provision allowed city council to approve funding in summer 2012 for "Flowing Kiss," 15-foot stainless-steel lip sculptures on opposite sides of Neil Avenue near North Bank Park. When the installation was unveiled last August, it became the first city-commissioned project to be completed in approximately 25 years, Baudro says.
The Riverfront Vision account is also to thank for "Scioto Lounge." For the $281,000 project, Allen drew inspiration from the Shawnee word "Scioto," which translates to "hairy water." (Long before Columbus was urbanized, it wasn't uncommon to see deer lingering near the riverbanks.) Most importantly, Allen intended the pieces to engage passersby.
Use of the Riverfront Vision account has limited the geographic scope of potential projects to the city's riverfronts. How future funds will be used-as well as which city areas will be home to new public art-is still being determined as the city and the art commission develop Columbus' first-ever public-art master plan.
"My goal is to identify projects through 2019," Baudro says. "This is surprising for other city staff learning about this that we'd want to look out that far. You can wait until a project is right there-that can happen and can be successful-but it does limit the options for what you're able to do."
Says Nance: "We want to define the [public-art] program in a more formal manner. These projects take weeks, months and years, and this plan is crucial to making sure we are being responsible and speaking to the community.
"We haven't gotten to this point in decades," she adds. "Other cities have; we have not-until the mayor pushed and made this stand."