Let’s remark on the enlivening of art in the public sphere.
But first, let’s take a selfie.
The five-story mural of Bob Dylan completed this month by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra and his team is part of a push for art in all corners of Minneapolis — and then hopefully ricocheted across the Internet.
“If it weren’t for social media, [the project] wouldn’t be such a big deal,” said local street artist Erin Sayer, who worked with Kobra on the project that wrapped on Sept. 8. “Nobody would care as much.”
Social media has transformed the roles of all players — planners, artists, consumers and onlookers — in the game of public art. The mass sharing of murals and other works has created a town hall for anyone to browse and speak up. And cities looking to convert digital traffic into literal traffic are assessing how they measure up. Their end goal: Bring more visitors to local businesses.
A proposed ordinance was approved at a Sept. 25 City Council meeting that will set aside an amount that equals 1.5 percent of the debt it takes on for public projects each year — after Mayor Betsy Hodges set aside no funding for public art this year. Another part of the proposal was an inaugural five-year plan for projects, which wasn’t formally adopted. On a Forbes magazine list of the country’s 15 “Most livable cities” — on which Minneapolis ranks No. 11 — Minneapolis was one of three that lack a firm public art law.
Major cities are thinking of ways to engage people in a world where every social media user wants to snap a photo with Kobra murals, the Chicago Bean or the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture. New York’s Public Art Fund, for instance, organized a meetup of so-called “Instagram influencers” to chart Brooklyn’s public art scene last month.
For artists, social media clout is as imperative as a paintbrush. Adam Turman, a popular local muralist and illustrator, says it’s instrumental in promoting and finding work and “let’s face it, showing off.” His recent projects include murals outside of restaurants, including 4 Bells and Butcher & the Boar.
“Social media, absolutely, for me is No. 1,” he said.
Gone are the days when word-of-mouth was enough to line up gigs. Turman followed along as play-by-plays of the Dylan mural ignited an Internet storm that didn’t exist when graffiti artists popularized tagging in the 1980s.
“Everybody around the world was getting fired up about it, and that’s what I hope people do with my work, as well,” Turman said.
Chad Zenk-Tills isn’t a street artist, but he posts images of local street art to his Instagram account @czt, which has acquired more than 2,000 followers. Much of his audience, he said, lives in other cities, and he’s even continued some conversations with admirers off the Web.
“I just sort of feed off of the visual, and it’s nice to share that with other people,” he said.
Searching for the hashtags #streetart or #publicart on Instagram will drum up millions of results from around the world.
“People who would never have an opportunity to experience and see any of [the Twin Cities’ art] can,” Zenk-Tills said. “I’ve never been to China, but I can see art daily from people in China.”
The local organizers behind the Dylan mural hope visitors who view it online will be compelled to visit in person.
“It’s a benefit-all situation,” said Joan Vorderbruggen, the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Cultural District arts coordinator who helped commission the project. “The city gets something beautiful, the artist gets exposure, the properties become destinations.”
Vorderbruggen has received e-mails from other stakeholders looking to imbue blank downtown walls, but couldn’t disclose details. While the project was unfolding, she watched everyone from a bride and groom to throngs of bikers stop to tilt their smartphones at the scene. Some onlookers documented the work with time-lapse videos.
“There’s no way that just one person could capture all the moving parts that were happening with this production,” she said. “We want that reach.”
Social networks also present ideal places to share qualms. For instance: Why not Prince instead of Dylan? Mike Davis, a local graphic designer, wrote a Facebook post recently about his discontent with the choice of Dylan and the missed opportunity to spotlight a local muralist (instead of Kobra). His post started a conversation among others who felt similarly, though he recognized that Kobra’s renown spiked some international buzz. He hopes the hype will open doors for local artists.
As for public art’s reach in the digital age, he added: “It kind of changed the definition of what public art is. The word ‘public’ means something totally different now. … What’s the point of public art if people don’t react to it?”
In the eyes of beholders
During the postwar era through the late 20th century, large-scale art projects have played a role in shaping community identity, according to Brenda Kayzar, an urban geographer at the University of Minnesota who specializes in downtown revitalization.
“The issue with public art is you’re never quite sure how it’s going to be taken and who is going to be represented and who is going to criticize the piece for whoever isn’t represented,” Kayzar said.
People have warmed to the term “graffiti artist” over only the past 20 years and at varying rates, depending on location. The divisions of art vs. graffiti, while always subjective, are also becoming increasingly blurred. Nowadays, public art is often formally commissioned by different agencies and organized by consultants, and serves a dual economic purpose.
The idea of “creative placemaking” in downtown Minneapolis is a priority for Hennepin Theatre Trust in fostering a cultural district where people flock to an area because of its aesthetic enrichment.
Downtown is still largely a blank canvas despite murals and social events commissioned in other parts of the city by art organizations like Juxtaposition Arts, Intermedia Arts and Flow Northside Art Crawl. As a whole, the Twin Cities’ public art scene is still in its infancy compared with larger cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
And in a culture where everyone can grab a pedestal, creative control is wrestled for more than ever.
“We all get to co-create the type of world we want to live in,” said Jack Becker, executive director of Forecast Public Art, a St. Paul-based nonprofit. “And that’s what I think is going on. People want to be ‘part of,’ not ‘apart from.’ ”
To each city its own
People want to see art not just in a museum but on their walk to the grocery store, the office or the bar. And that’s why consultants like her are modeling their programs on those tested in other cities, such as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
“Every city needs to come up with its own public art strategy,” said Renee Piechocki, a public arts consultant in Pittsburgh. “Figuring out the mix of projects that are going to inspire people and are appropriate for a certain place is crucial.”
Some common questions, Piechocki added, include: “Who are the users? How do they interact with the space?”
Well, they whip out their front-facing cameras and snap a selfie with the mural — which is just another mini-billboard for public art, Piechocki said.
“Who hasn’t taken a picture of themselves with a piece of art and posted it on their Facebook page and e-mailed it to their mother?”
She added: “Do I think that taking a selfie with a piece of artwork deepens your knowledge and understanding of what that artwork is? Mmm, probably not.”