Editor’s Note: Public art is a rising priority in local cities, but sometimes comes with disputes about lack of transparency in how the art is selected and placed. The city of Brookhaven is about to relocate its new “Young Girl’s Statue for Peace,” a memorial to Korean women sexually trafficked by the Japanese military in World War II, from one park to another following a threatened lawsuit over the lack of public input in its placement. The partial disassembly of Buckhead’s iconic sculpture “The Storyteller” and its relocation from a city park to the local library have drawn criticisms from the artist and civic leaders. Meanwhile, the city of Sandy Springs recently created detailed policies on how it will solicit, accept and display public art as it prepares to open its arts-oriented City Springs civic center next year. The nonprofit Art Sandy Springs plays a key role in that process. Reporter Newspapers asked Cheri Morris of Art Sandy Springs to explain the goals and strategies in crafting a municipal public art policy.
The Atlanta metro area has, in recent years, begun to energetically embrace public art as a means of creating community and enhancing quality of life.
Much of the work is being done by nonprofit organizations. Living Walls has facilitated over 100 public murals throughout the region. The Atlanta BeltLine hosts the annual Art on the BeltLine, with more than 100 fine and performing arts components. Art Sandy Springs has for the last 10 years donated sculptures and murals to the city of Sandy Springs through its program known as “ArtSS in the Open.” The most noteworthy of these is the iconic Playable Art Park created in concert with Sandy Springs Conservancy.
Local governments are beginning to add their power to the burgeoning public art scene, with an eye to creating their own unique sense of place and supporting economic development. Cities such as Alpharetta, Brookhaven, Duluth, Roswell, Sandy Springs and Suwannee have created public art programs, each with a distinct mission appropriate to its geography.
Art does not come without controversy. Indeed, Michelangelo, the great Italian sculptor and painter, was quite controversial in his day for celebrating the musculature of the human form at a time when virtually all art was liturgical and created in celebration of the divine.
Some art is intended to be controversial, to create public discourse about a subject the artist believes should be explored. A recent example is the “Fearless Girl,” a statue of a girl staring down the famous snorting bronze bull on Wall Street, sponsored by a large financial institution to make a statement in support of gender equity in the financial industry.
On the local front, the “comfort women” statue in Brookhaven makes a strong social commentary that is creating some discomfort. Controversy that promotes the progress of humanity, as did Michelangelo, or spurs thought and public discourse, can be a very good thing.
But some controversy is unnecessary and counterproductive, and can be avoided with forethought and planning. Atlanta has seen mural art removed by neighbors who felt it was just too biologically explicit. Some art purchased for parks has been disassembled and split into different ownership, surprising and disappointing the artist.
Many good souls are working to fill our city with beauty and to do so with as few stumbles as possible. The city of Sandy Springs can be held up as a great example of thoughtfully approaching its public art program with carefully crafted goals, strategies, criteria and policy. The program is embedded in city policy and is being implemented through a memorandum of understanding with Art Sandy Springs.
The first step was to incorporate public art into the city’s Comprehensive Plan and to include discussion in the extensive public meetings around that planning process. The Comp Plan calls for creation of a more detailed Public Art Plan to establish everything from criteria for what is judged as art, to potential locations of art pieces in city-owned open spaces, to a plan of action to procure and place those pieces in the coming years.
The public art plan will be fulfilled in part by an annual sculpture competition, managed by Art Sandy Springs. Annual finalists will be displayed in the park at City Springs, with public comment invited. And each year’s winners will be transported to their permanent homes in the city’s parks and open spaces.
The city also has established a Public Art Policy, including the criteria and procedures for acceptance, conservancy and divestiture of gifts in parks and open spaces. Art Sandy Springs will assist the city in evaluating potential donations of public art and will work with the donors to tie their ideas into the city’s Public Art Plan.
On its part, Art Sandy Springs brings 10 years of learning to the process of procuring public art. The Playable Art Park took almost two years to bring to fruition from a well-structured call for entries, to community participation in the screening process, to review of the entries by art conservators for maintenance issues and playground experts for safety.
We conducted several focus groups of children who went through the entries to comment on playability. And then we brought in highly credentialed art experts for the final judging. This group included the objects conservator of the High Museum, the head of the sculpture department at the Savannah College for Art and Design-Atlanta, the sculpture conservator of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and others. One of my greatest joys is that, of the six winners selected by the judges, five were also in the top picks of the children.
Whereas Art Sandy Springs functioned independently in its first 10 years, the city and the organization found it wise to create a partnership in which the city embraces and fortifies the awareness of art, sets clear expectations and procedures within which to work, and empowers the subject matter experts at Art Sandy Springs to bring its volunteer resources to perform the painstaking work that is not within the reality of government.
The tools that have been put in place do not assure that there will be no controversy. Surely someone won’t think a certain sculpture is pretty or a mosaic is wonderful. And it is not out of the question that the city may someday choose to own a piece of art that is intended to provoke thought or create dialogue. However, we can be assured that controversy won’t come from hurt feelings, or art content that is simply outside societal norms.
Cheri Morris is past president of Art Sandy Springs and chairs the organization’s “ArtSS in the Open” public art program. She also develops, leases, owns, manages and consults on mixed-use communities, with a focus on downtown revitalizations.