Sunday, May 21, 2017

City Council, May 22nd - Two Downtown Murals

Council meets Monday, and finally there are some details on the murals proposed for downtown.

Just in time for thinking about the murals, Strong Towns has had a "Public Art Week."

In one of the notes, they say
What's clear to me is that public art cannot be used to cover up failures in urban design. A neglected, unproductive street with a sculpture on the corner, is still a neglected, unproductive street.
And, well, that's just exactly the problem here.

Penny's Plaza, the parking garage,
 and the alleyway are together charmless and desolate.
A woodpecker motif might add a little charm.
From the Staff Report:
In December 2016, in recognition of the value of art to the vibrancy of Salem’s downtown, the Downtown Advisory Board recommended the use of Urban Renewal Agency funding for the two mural installations. One mural is to be located on the Chemeketa Parkade’s east stairwell, the other is to be located on a short, rounded wall of the City-owned lease-able space in the alley between Liberty and Commercial, accessed from Chemeketa Street.

The proposed murals are the result of the Salem Public Art Commission’s effort to commission murals from well-regarded northwest artists, recognized for the quality of their recent public commissions. In creating the Salem Public Art Commission and the Public Art Fund, the City Council in 2010 recognized “that visual arts contribute to and provide experiences that enrich and better the social and physical environment of the community…” Beginning with more than 25 artists of interest, the Commission sought interest and availability from 10 northwest artists. Of the four submitting conceptual designs for the mural sites, the Commission selected two: Blaine Fontana and Damien Gilley. The murals will be the subject of a Salem Public Art Commission public hearing on June 8, 2017. If approved, the Damien Gilley piece will be installed before July 5, 2017 and the Blaine Fontana piece will be installed beginning July 10 through July 25.
Waldo Stewards on north side of Chemeketa,
Blaine Fontana
(You can match this to the streetview at top)
Blaine Fontana's proposal, "Waldo Stewards," is more straight-forward and if not exactly site-specific, is grounded in something of a concept about a specific Salem thing:
Blaine Fontana’s proposed work to be featured on the Chemeketa Parkade stairwell, viewed from the alley and Chemeketa Street NE between Liberty Street NE and Commercial Street NE, is titled “Waldo Stewards.” The work honors Salem’s own Waldo Park, the smallest redwood park in the world. The redwood tree encompasses the canvas of the stairwell and includes Pileated Woodpeckers, which are often hidden and rarely seen. By featuring the woodpeckers, the artist’s intent to conceptually mirror the discovery of this mural and add an energetic narrative to the concept. The work also features pop graphics to symbolize the pinecones leaving the tree for growth and development.

The proposed mural will cover the entire exterior surface of the Chemeketa Parkade’s east stairwell. The mural installation will face south, east and north for a total surface area of 529 square feet. By wrapping the Chemeketa Parkade stairwell, some features of the mural will be visible from the elevator doors on the west facade. At this location and this size, the mural is an appropriate scale and will bring much-needed color and vibrancy to the existing building or surrounding business district.
I like the woodpecker bit. Flickers, Sapsuckers, or Downy Woodpeckers might be more accurate for an urban forest scene in Salem. Have you seen a Pileated actually in town? But whatever. Realism isn't the point. This proposal seems like it strikes a reasonable balance between "high art" purposes and public accessibility. ("Critter labels" on wines are popular for a reason!)

Mirror Maze on south side of Chemeketa, Damien Gilley
Mirror Maze is hard to grasp in the mock-up, and it may not stand alone without its textual explication:
Damien Gilley’s approach to this site is highly influenced by the architecture present, as his work uses architecture as a place maker that houses our cultural activity...[interpreting] the perception of moving through urban centers through a lens of multiple temporal references. This approach aims to challenge the viewer’s traditional viewing of their surroundings by using subtle visual cues that are abstracted forms from the site. Elements of play and perception are important for the artist to communicate, aiming to give the viewer moments of pause and reflection. The artist hopes the work opens up ideas in the viewer of future forms of structure, contemporary visual interaction with our environment, and the promotion of unique abstract interpretations of our communities. The artist wants to reinforce the transformative nature of place by drawing attention is to its innate, and sometimes invisible structures. This bold graphic solution echoes the most simplified of elements of the surrounding area to make a strong perceptual effect. It both identifies prominently the architecture it exists on while offering a more visual experience that aims to multiply and dislocate traditional architectural physicality. In general, it breaks apart monotony to give a unique reflection of the surroundings in a formal context, presenting the locale in a more dynamic moment.

The proposed mural will cover the entire surface of the short wall in the alley between Commercial and Liberty Streets NE. Several new businesses have opened recently in this portion of the alley between Commercial and Liberty Streets NE. Fronting the alley, these businesses are accessed from the alley and rely on customer traffic to the alley. The proposed mural will face south, to the business entrances. At this location and this size, the mural is an appropriate scale and will bring much-needed color and vibrancy to the existing building or surrounding business district.
Is this a painting? It seems unlikely to involve actual mirrors, so I think it is.

But consider this is an alley between a former department store and a parking garage. Even though it's on the backside of the now-closed McGrath's/Urban Alley, and opposite the Cider company, which may well deserve a better view, it seems like something of a mismatch: "This approach aims to challenge the viewer’s traditional viewing of their surroundings by using subtle visual cues that are abstracted forms from the site....The artist wants to reinforce the transformative nature of place by drawing attention is to its innate, and sometimes invisible structures."

It's an alley. The "abstracted forms" are same-sized rectangles and don't seem to have anything to do with the actual architecture nearby. Are they supposed to nod to the window panels and their reflections? From here, anyway, this reads like an off-the-shelf, generic graphics package that could land on any flat wall surface. I don't see how draws attention to any hidden structure here. This is all too complicated and fussy.

Even just as a graphical design, it seems like a let down. Probably the current shows at Hallie Ford on the 60s, with Black Light posters and Op Art, would have more compelling and wondrous patterning. I wonder how well this design will age.

Your mileage may vary. Public art doesn't have to please everyone and a program should have some tolerance of risk so that it isn't all boring or banal. Maybe the more important thing is just to do it and then reassess afterwards to do more of them. Rather than trying to dress up the blanks and voids created by the parking garage, maybe we need to think more about ways that excessive parking itself sucks the life out of a city.

Other Matters

Though it doesn't look like we'll have a water shortage this year, the past few summers you will recall had Detroit Lake at perilously low levels. Council will take up rulemaking for "water curtailment" measures:
Level 1: Alert. Retail and wholesale customers are notified. The City disseminates messages asking customers to use water wisely.
Level 2: Voluntary Curtailment. Customers are notified of an actual water supply shortage and asked to voluntarily curtail water usage. The City will limit the use of water for irrigation, hydrant flushing, street sweeping, and other intensive water uses.
Level 3: Mandatory Curtailment. A critical water supply shortage has been declared. Mandatory restrictions are placed on all lawn watering and other non-essential water uses.
Level 4: Severe Curtailment. Water use is restricted to only that necessary for life and health. Water usage may be restricted for large industrial and institutional customers as determined by the City Manager.
That seems like a good first step.

The Mayor wants to create a special committee on Transit.
There is a concern in the community that the public transportation system does not adequately serve our residents. Council has identified a vibrant and convenient public transportation system as a goal during our strategic planning process. The City can play an important role in furthering and supporting the public transportation system through the development and management of the street system, through zoning to facilitate access to transit, and review of development that impacts the public transit system.

It is important that not only the City and Transit, but employers and transit riders, coordinate and communicate effectively with each other in order improve the public transportation system.

Therefore, I believe the creation of a Transit Committee, comprised of members of council, riders, and the public, to investigate solutions, and advise the City on policies and actions that will improve the public transportation system is necessary.
Especially since the creation of a Sustainability Commission was discussed but not enacted, this is an interesting move. Of course new committees and their studies are also infamous substitutes for action. So we'll see. If they are able to make better substantive connections between transportation and land use, this could be a strong move. An important test will be how they react to and discuss the Salem River Crossing and development in West Salem.

And bullets for the rest:


Susann Kaltwasser said...

It is interesting that a discussion of public art is happening on Facebook stimulated by someone posting about a statue in Portland of a dog. The dog is very realistic and life sized so that people can actually relate to it. People seem to think that Salem needs some better art in our public spaces.

When I heard that there were to be two new mural downtown, i had high hopes for something interesting and also relatable. The mural of the birds in a tree looks like it might be interesting. Putting on an interesting structure might add something that is not possible to see on first look, so I am hopeful.

However the second mural leaves me cold. Too much of the art that is selected by the Art Commission is confusing and not something that people can appreciate. The mural on the back of the Elsinore Theater is unique, colorful and relates to the topic of a theater. People like it and it is iconic.

This 'hall of mirrors in none of that and I fear will add to the clutter of nonsense art we most abhor.

I Googled the subject 'urban murals' and found few examples that I think actually appeal to a wide audience, except maybe the "Audubon Society's Bird Mural Project" in New York City. The art that works best seems to relate in some way to the area, or has a natural theme. Maybe that is why the other mural has more appeal.

I hope that more people hear about this topic so that we could get some public comments. I am sure that the Art people will be out in force singing the praises of the murals, and the Council members will likely sit there and nod their heads thinking..."not my taste, but I guess I am just not that educated about these things....."

Thanks for raising this topic, because yet again the City has done an absolutely horrible job of engaging the public is something that we will be paying for and have to look at for a long time.

Britta Franz said...

Is it true that the request is to use $50,000 dollars of Urban Renewal moneys...???

Susann Kaltwasser said...

This is an informational report to City Council. Downtown Renewal Funds, are probably approved by the Downtown Advisory Board (DAB).

Here is what it says about the Arts Budget which the City Council has authority over:

Per Salem Revised Code 15.030, 70 percent of these funds are to be used for acquiring public art, 20 percent are to be used for the purposes of managing the public art collection to include program management and community education, and 10 percent are to be used to support maintenance, conservation and de-accessioning of materials in the collection. The proposed Public Art Fund Budget for FY 2017-18 is $58,740.