Public Art: a focus on projects, or a process?

A scene from April's "Remnants of Boise" exhibit, an art show exploring issues of historic preservation and community character.  Courtesy City of Boise.

A scene from April’s “Remnants of Boise” exhibit, an art show exploring issues of historic preservation and community character.
Courtesy City of Boise.

The City of Boise’s “Sesqui-Shop,” located at 1008 W. Main St., evokes all the charm of a living room, furnished with trendy wood-paneled benches, cozy easy chairs and walls festooned with bright artwork. Perhaps by accident or design, it’s an environment conducive to conversations about planning–far removed from the bureaucratic confines of administrative hearings and Planning and Zoning department cubicles. Originally billed as an art gallery and events space, the Sesqui-Shop has become a de facto place for fostering a community discussion about arts, culture and civic engagement in the city’s downtown core.

To that end, Boise City Department of Arts and History have solicited input from Sesqui-Shop visitors in the search for a new public art piece to grace City Hall Plaza. Previously, citizens were asked peruse proposals for the $200,000 contract in the stuffy, out-of-the-way confines of City Hall. After rejecting two previous rounds of proposals, city officials opted for a different tact. The Arts and History department called for a new round of proposals, and opted to invite visitors to view the plans not where they pay parking tickets, but at the city-created arts hub the Sesqui-Shop, a hip storefront location built to celebrate Boise’s 150th birthday. Process and procedure have changed, as well. After dodging criticism for a distinct absence of proposals from local artists, the city was sensitive to calls for a broader, more inclusive effort, and actively solicited work from Idaho-based artists.

Community members are invited to stop by between now and the end of November, to look over the 27 proposals and provide their feedback, contributing to a conversation about public art in the city, and what form it should take.

The "Boise Globe," a proposal submitted by Atlanta, GA's Volkan Alkanoglu Design, LLC, ultimately rejected.

The “Boise Globe,” a proposal submitted by Atlanta, GA’s Volkan Alkanoglu Design, LLC, ultimately rejected.
Courtesy City of Boise.

As the presence of this public input process suggests, the storefront has morphed into more than just an art gallery. Soon after the Sesqui-Shop sprang up, in December of last year, regular lectures and workshops have developed the space into a mainstay for arts and cultural events, drawing hundreds during the annual Treefort Music Fest, and during First Thursday. More importantly, planning and planning issues have entered the conversation. In April, the “Remnants of Boise” exhibit proffered a historic preservation perspective on the Boise community’s past, and by extension, its present–fostering a robust planning conversation, in practice, if not in name.

Can this process be strengthened, and made more collaborative? I believe it can. Currently, each proposal is subject to the whims of the democratic process–each visitor can vote to see his or her favorite project move forward. But I believe involving the artists in the process before the conceptual stage could go a long way toward embedding the wishes of the community within the design itself. At the very least, a public input process to establish the values held by members of the community, their goals and aspirations for public art, could provide residents a strong investment in influencing the shape of their community.

Re: Site and Metalab, from Houston, Texas, submitted "Eyrie" for consideration for City Hall Plaza. This, too, was rejected.

Re: Site and Metalab, from Houston, Texas, submitted “Eyrie” for consideration for City Hall Plaza. This, too, was rejected.
Courtesy City of Boise.

Using the Sesqui-Shop as a public forum can further contribute to the space’s function as a venue for planning. I argue the city’s made a big step forward by bringing these proposals to the people. Now, they should capitalize on that momentum, and expand their reach to gain even more input from the public on public art concepts and ideas. Not only should proposals grace the red brick walls of the Sesqui-Shop, but input should be solicited at numerous places throughout the city, from humble community centers to public libraries. One could argue the Sesqui-Shop takes a downtown-centric view of the community–officials should stymie that criticism by extending arts services to far-flung reaches of the community, wrap public art and discussion about it into services offered by Boise Parks and Recreation or other efforts.

Building off topics introduced in a previous blog post, “Should Cities Support or Stymie Street Art?,” providing residents the opportunity to define what art is, where it should happen and how can go a long way toward establishing a strong sense of ownership in those residents’ communities.