November 12, 2002

Public Art Forum Draws Few

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A public forum sponsored by the City of Ithaca council was held yesterday at the Women’s Community Building, where discussion led by public art commissioner Martha Frummelt aimed to create awareness about art among members of the Ithaca community.

A large multi-purpose room devoted solely to the event was barely filled, the audience totaling around twenty five people, mostly older members of the Ithaca community with connections to the art world.

Gary Ferguson, a member of the commission hosted the event and gave a slide presentation on the definition of public art.

“What is public art?,” Ferguson asked the audience. He answered, “public art depends on your own definition.”

Afterward, his presentation was followed by individual presentations of four panel members. The members’ presentations and subsequent discussion with the audience aimed to gain insights from community members to develop a plan for public art in the City of Ithaca.

One audience member voiced concern over using public money to fund art. The audience member said that she doesn’t agree that the city should use public money to fund public art, “especially if the city doesn’t have money.”

The slide show presented by Gary Ferguson was compiled by Rachel Swanson, a student intern from Ithaca College. This presentation defined public art by three characteristics, the first as art accessible to the entire community, the second as an integration into daily life and the third being art used as a means of reclaiming and re-humanizing the environment.

Ferguson explained that most public art pieces are usually murals or sculptures put in public places or spaces. However, Ferguson also pointed out that public art depends partly on a subjective definition. For example, some people consider a normal street bench public art, while others only consider a designer street bench made out of special materials part of this category.

“Some people think this is art, some think it is street furniture,” Ferguson said, as he pointed to his slide of a wooden bench. “As long as there have been people, there have been attempts at public art.”

Previously, public art in communities was usually statues of war heroes, according to Ferguson, but with the help of government funding, public art was able to move beyond these typical sculptures and develop creatively.

Ferguson addressed four main lessons to be taken away from public art: the representation of public art in its surrounding environment, its communication with the public, its political message and the diverse audience public art attracts.

Ferguson recently put together a display of public art entitled ‘Art in the Heart of the City,’ which is a collection of artists’ work from across the area that is displayed around the City of Ithaca. The two most political pieces, according to Ferguson, in this show are ‘Child of Senegal’ by Philippe Faraut, displayed in City Hall and ‘Hand in Heart’ by Nancy Azara, displayed in the Commons.

“It is important to think about the political views these pieces represent,” Ferguson said.

Following Ferguson’s slide show were four presentations by selected panelists.

The first to speak was Susan Blumenthal, City Council Alderperson who created the Public Design Commission that handles business between Ithaca and the artists who are either donating or selling their work and designs to the City.

Rob Licht spoke after and was followed by another artist who has a piece in the current show, Ben Sherman.

“Public art should create an initial visual impact and in its best form should speak to you in a new way,” Sherman said.

Sherman continued by explaining his position that a city that supports its artists by offering a venue for their work makes the city a stimulating place to live and a good environment. However, Sherman raised the controversy that public art is often not placed in environments that maximize their interest and appeal.

He voiced his concern that his piece, ‘Ocean Dune,’ in the show was placed in an alley by M&T Bank, where the optimal light needed to create interest in his piece only happened once a day at twelve noon.

Mac Travis was the final panelist to speak, gave a businessman’s perspective on public art.

He shared with the audience that in working on his various construction projects, including Eddygate in Collegetown, he incorporated murals and art into his buildings because it is important to the quality of life in Ithaca, according to Travis.

“I will continue to integrate local art into my buildings because I feel it is important to the community,” Travis said.

Frommelt concluded the panel presentations by opening discussion to the audience.

In a post discussion interview, she reiterated that this discussion is just the beginning of gathering ideas for the new Design Commission. She concluded by centering on the importance of gathering input from all segments of Ithaca’s population, including students, when she said, “collaboration between both institutions is extremely important to the city.”

Archived article by Sarah Workman