Expanding The Definition Of Art

Courtesy of Flickr

I recently sat down with Ed Lebow, Public Art Manager with the city of Phoenix. I wanted a quick overview of public art in Greater Downtown Phoenix, but I ended up learning more than I had bargained for. Our conversation opened my eyes to the amazing Public Art Program that we have in Phoenix.

A few quick facts:

  • Created in 1986 through an ordinance that allots one percent of the city’s Capital Improvement Program to public art
  • More than 145 major projects have been completed since the program started
  • Received two Design for Transportation Awards from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Endowment for the Arts
  • The city of Phoenix just received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Art to redesign the city block in front of the Phoenix Public Market

I had never realized how fortunate we are to have such an incredible Public Arts Program! We are among the few cities in the world that incorporates public art into our infrastructure. Ed mentioned that the City receives quite a few international phone calls inquiring about the projects that blend both function and art. Many think of Her Secret is Patience as our piece of public art downtown, but what about the hidden functional pieces of art?

Water is like gold here in the desert. We are taught to use it wisely for fear that we won’t have enough to go around. I especially love it when people come up with creative ways to re-use water. Did you know that tucked away at the Convention Center is a piece of public art that not only provides downtown with a little greenery, but also recycles the condensation from Convention Center’s air conditioning system? Very green if you ask me! Habitat was designed by Christy Ten Eyck, a PCA corporate board member, and Judeen Terrey. The water that is collected flows through a series of Mouse Trap-like mazes and then waters the garden below. It was recently recognized as one of the 40 best public art works in the United States and Canada. I would also like to note that two other pieces from the Valley won the award, Her Secret is Patience and Spirit of Inquiry. Both pieces can be seen along Light Rail.

Public art along Light Rail is hard to miss, but ever thought of looking down? If you have ever stepped foot on the Obsorn/Central Ave platform, then you may have passed right over a piece of art. The platform at the mid-town stop is embedded with different footprints. Tapping Time was created by Thomas Sayre with waiting in mind. According to Metro Public Art, the bronze shoe prints depict the activities of approximately 100 people for five seconds after a southbound train has stopped in the west side of the platform. Something so simple creates a distraction for those new 12 minute wait times.

If you find a few extra moments during your Light Rail commute, take a second to wander off the beaten path. Across from the Central Phoenix transit station, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, a light sculpture mixes science with beauty. The piece entitled, Passive Solar Light Engine, spiffs up the main stairwell of the building and keeps hot air away from the space. The five-story light sculpture was designed by Paul Deeb of Vox Arts. According to an article from ASU News, “Deeb used clear thread and metal fragments sandwiched between sheets of frosted glass to create what he calls a passive solar light engine. As the sun heats up the space between the panes, the thread and fragments move, creating an effect like clouds or waves swirling between the panes of glass. At night, the windows are lit from within, offering dramatic views to passersby on Central Avenue and First Streets.”

I have climbed the stairs at the Cronkite School, but I have not had the chance to witness the science experiment in action. Had I not known, I would have never guessed that these “windows” were part of the City’s Public Art Program. What a difference it makes when you actually know about the hidden treasures of Downtown Phoenix!

Public art is not always a bronze statue or a mural. While we have plenty of those, we also have a number of extraordinary pieces that speak to the uniqueness of the Valley of the Sun. Mr. Lebow mentioned that people often think of public art in standard terms, however our pieces are different than their expectations. Why try to be like everyone else, when Phoenix is doing an excellent job combining function and art.

Last week, the Public Art Program put out a call to artists to submit proposals for the Arterial Canal Crossings Public Art Project and the Avenida Rio Salado/Broadway Rd Public Art Project. Applications for both projects must be received by Friday, September 3 at 5pm.

To learn more about the Public Art Program, check out the video below. I also encourage you to visit their website.

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