Jack Schaeffer saw a new vision when he stepped into Red Mountain Park.
Schaeffer was taken by the 1,500-acre park. At just 5 percent complete, it's already home to 14 miles of bike and hike trails, outdoor adventures such as zip lines and a ropes course, and land management goats. As Schaeffer toured the property with Executive Director David Dionne, he learned of the area's role in World War II, when ore from its mines became artillery, airplanes and more.
Why aren't more people here? Schaeffer wondered. How can I draw attention to this park?
Art was the answer.
"Anyone can write a check," Schaeffer says. And in fact, he did. The park's Segway tours now bear the name of Schaeffer Eye Center, where he's CEO and president. But awareness is another part of an entity's success, and so he sponsored The Schaeffer Spectacles. The oversized sculpture, created by the MESH collective, debuted in the park last week. This week, a crew installed its 3D likeness on a Red Mountain Expressway billboard.
The project has a specific aim: inform people about and draw them to Red Mountain Park. You could call that advertising, and it's surely an element of the campaign. But it's only one of public art's many roles.
Public art isn't a new concept, in Birmingham or elsewhere. Just look at the Birmingham Mural Project of the 1970s if you need a reminder. But it's seeing revived interest as several projects come online simultaneously.
Public art can take on a number of forms, and already you can see examples around the city: Sculptures depict the civil rights movement in Kelly Ingram Park. A responsive metal installation moves when people stroll through the McWane Science Center plaza. Murals add life to walls throughout town, from Ensley to East Lake, Southside to North Birmingham. The common thread is each piece's public visibility and, ideally, its role in the community.
"Public art doesn't always speak to the community in ways that they think is appropriate or add an element that they appreciate. It doesn't always have to be an object of beauty," says Birmingham Museum of Art Director Gail Andrews. "But I think it has to be an object or an initiative that adds to people's understanding--not necessarily of themselves, but of the community, a moment in time or the location in which the piece is commissioned."
Museums may seem, at first glance, the antithesis of public art. And indeed, one of public art's roles in speaking to people within their place instead of an isolated room.
"I've always wondered what it would be like to be a musician," says visual artist Darius Hill, who this week participated in a public art panel at the museum. "You hear music all the time, everywhere. It's on the elevator, it's in the grocery store, it's at a concert, it's on your iPod, it's everywhere, it's in your car. No one ever thinks about the venue. No one ever thinks about whether it belongs in those particular places. It's just there."
Not so with art.
"It's stuck in a room, it's stuck in a gallery, it's stuck in a museum, it's stuck in a house," continues Hill, who teaches high school art at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. "It doesn't flow like music does."
Public art strips away that formality.
But curators and gallerists can also bring knowledge to the conversation and execution. Five Points South's "Storyteller" fountain, a sculpture by Frank Fleming, and "Prinzessin Natalie," a Frank Stella sculpture located at the Alys Stephens Center's Engel Plaza, are part of the museum's permanent collection, and so the institution is responsible for their care.
In fact, some of the city's existing public art grew out of a 1990s BMA project. In 1994, the museum hosted painter Jacob Lawrence's "Migration Series". It's a collection of 60 works that explore the movement of black people from the American South to the northern part of the country. The museum's mural initiative was an effort to spark conversation around these issues. Andrews says the project, coordinated by then-artist-in-residence Toby Richards, started with one or two murals. But demand was high, and ultimately resulted in a number of murals throughout the city. (Many of them no longer exist.)
"What kind of images do you want in your community?" Andrews asks. "What do you want this mural to say, and how do you want it to speak to you?"
Likewise, Hill's ASFA students occasionally participate in mural projects, an effort he says he wishes could be more frequent. And though public art can increase a place's aesthetic appeal, its beauty isn't skin deep.
Aesthetics are one of the top three drivers of community attachment. That's according to Soul of the Community, a 2010 collaboration between The Knight Foundation and Gallup, which surveyed 40,000 people in 26 communities about what made them attached to their places. Aesthetics, including physical beauty and green space, came in third to social offerings and openness. (Yes, that means basics such as safety and economy ranked lower.) And although the communities included were spread across the nation, there was little variation in how participants ranked the things most important to them.
That's about more than liking where you live. The three-year study saw a positive correlation between attachment and GDP growth. The report also suggested that residents who feel strongly about their communities are more likely to invest in their success.
Around the country, and indeed, around the world, cities are (and have been) investing in public art initiatives. Public art is different from art in, say, a museum for one very obvious reason: it's outside, in public. Public art, especially in places that have developed robust public arts projects, give character to a city.
Locally, conversations about public art are ongoing; The Jefferson County Commission recently endorsed a recommendation that would create retractable shades for the Jefferson County Courthouse murals, titled "Old South" and "New South." The murals depict black people conducting physical labor while white people look on, and they sparked debate about the role of art in public places.
"What is our history as a city of the Deep South that had slavery?" asks Andrews, who served on the proposal committee. "How should we interpret that for a new generation in a place of justice, a courthouse?"
And as new public art projects pop up, artists ask themselves how the work can engage the viewer.
Stephanie Guckenberger painted the Vulcan Mural Project on Third Avenue North and is one third of Blank Space Mural Project, which is fundraising for another theater district mural. She draws inspiration from the murals in an alley behind Redemptive Cycles, located nearby on Second Avenue North.
"It totally changes your perspective of that little section" of downtown, she says. "I think public art can also bridge the gap between cultures and places."
But it's easy for people to walk past even public art without engaging, says Heather Spencer Holmes of MESH Collective, which created the Schaeffer Spectacles.
"It challenges the imagination. It should be inspiring, and with all of this brick-and-mortar and asphalt and concrete everywhere, there are beautiful things to look at," she says. Creating works that people can interact with helps spark public interest.
To that end, Jack Schaeffer says Spencer's sculpture won't be the last in Red Mountain Park: "This is not about this piece of art. This is about our future."