Veteran, Seattle-based public artist and urban planner Jack Mackie warned his audience they would never look at their environment in the same way after leaving his presentation last Thursday. And indeed, I have never noticed--and been disappointed by--hoards of plain-jane, mundane, cookie-cutter, not-living-up-to-their-potential manhole covers, gutters, bridges, tree grates, fences and benches. Mackie's City Club lecture and slide show, entitled "Toward a Civic Art" opened up many possibilities for the presence of art in unexpected places and demonstrated the ways that public art, particularly civic art, can deeply impact a community and redefine public space.
Mackie made a point of distinguishing art in public places from civic art. Art in public places is work that emerges strictly from an artist's mind, without any regard for context. Civic art is absolutely tied to context and is created through intensive collaboration, planning and research. Civic art reflects the sociology of a place, the issues affecting its history; it looks to the greatest problems of our time for fuel--immigration, at-risk youth, aging, isolation, obesity, national security, health care or environmental issues.
Among the many projects Mackie highlighted was an extra-wide crosswalk painted like a barcode outside the FDA building, the birthplace of the barcode. Then there was a community pool in Santa Cruz, which had a necessary but uninviting chain link fence around its perimeter. Mackie dryly joked, "Nothing says family swimming pool like chain link fence." He explained how the community upgraded the cold, utilitarian fence by adding large, colorful, sculptural insets of images indigenous to the area--monarch butterflies, California Poppies, Monterrey Bay sea life. Other slides showed a cluster of seating possibilities at a Portland MAC public transit stop--colorful seats and benches shaped like question marks, commas and periods. Yes, they're fun to look at, but they also pose questions: Where will I sit? When will I stop? Where am I going?
Civic art merges art and politics, creativity and activism. Mackie's examples from other cities proved that artists and politicians can and should successfully rub shoulders and share ideas. His City Club of Boise audience reflected this too--in attendance were big time politicos like Mayor Dave Bieter and Senator Mike Burkett; commissioners and staff members from Idaho Arts Commission and Boise City Arts Commission; established public artists and aspiring ones all mixed in with architects, planners and other community-minded folk. Connecting everyone in the room was a common interest: a desire to improve our quality of life through art.
For Mackie, civic art gives people choices and expands possibilities. A long, winding bench with different angular protrusions creates several inviting seating arrangements--pods of two, three or four. Civic art also educates; one featured project involved students who collected aluminum cans, then melted them down and recast the metal into a sculpture for the façade of their school. Another showed a tree bandaged and adorned with crutches, signifying the tree's endangered status.
At its core, civic art is about creating interesting places that draw people in. Artists should be integrated into the process right from the get-go, they must serve on committees and be an integral part of the team of planners, engineers, architects and city officials. Mackie calls himself an artist, but also a small business owner, and he believes his business of art is no different from a small plumbing business. He also believes artists need not be isolated individuals and they need not be intimidated by the creation of civic art.
Mackie deftly addresses skepticism from artists, neighbors or politicians. He stressed that artists can meet codes and can be flexible. And sure there may be added costs involved, but these can be negligible, especially when the art is part of necessary infrastructure, or when you consider the long-term value of the work.
Mackie's 23 years of experience in the public art sphere have taught him that any initial opposition to an idea can usually be eradicated if those in opposition are involved right from the start. This is not to say some civic art doesn't produce controversy. When Mackie's own famous "Footsteps on Broadway" was initially proposed and installed in Seattle, it was shocking. But now his playful inlaid dance footsteps on the sidewalk are a Seattle icon, directly affecting how people move through space. They actually inspire spontaneous dancing--one of Mackie's original goals. (And, he has the photos to prove it.)
Through Mackie's involvement on hoards of projects in the United States and Europe, he has witnessed how civic art can become essential to a community. In Vancouver, every building is required to spend $1 per square foot on public art, something the private business community loves because it makes every building unique. In Scottsdale, Arizona, a record two percent of the budget of any new building project must go toward public art.
The amount of public art in Boise has been steadily on the rise; many folks here aim to make ours a city teeming with civic art, a city that is interesting to look at and tells compelling stories. Boise City Arts Commission's Public Art Coordinator Karen Bubb currently has her pulse on over 12 projects in the works including art for our parks, busses, airport and in the design of the new Environmental Education Center. Boise City's percent-for-art program helps fund many of these projects and serves as a model for other parts of the state.
Mackie has been a key player in building momentum and support around civic art all over the state. He has been doing his presentations throughout Idaho, as the keynote speaker in a series of regional Idaho Commission on the Arts (ICA) conferences. Bubb described Mackie "as an artist who understands all sides of the urban planning process, which allows him to integrate creative ideas into the most mundane infrastructure projects. Through his art work and presentations, he helps us all see the potential for poetry in our everyday environment."
Dan Harpole, Executive Director of Idaho Commission on the Arts finds Mackie's mix of inspiration and pragmatism to be central to helping ICA introduce a new piece of legislation to make additional provisions for public art during the 2005 legislative session. Harpole knows Mackie is and will continue to be a great source of information for elected leaders and community members and he plans to bring Mackie back in January to give a presentation to the Legislature.
This balance between dreaming and making dreams come true, between beauty and function, is what makes Mackie's work and ideas so positively vitalizing. He reminds us that red tape does not always paralyze, that cooperation among people from seemingly disparate realms is possible and that art has infinite power to enhance our everyday lives.