There’s the wing of lights that beckons you to the airport on Billy Graham Parkway. There are those eye-popping pop-art silos that whiz by when you pass South End.
And there’s that mind-blowing mobile of little gold heads that slowly come together into a single human face in the lobby of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.
It’s public art. And it’s all yours, Charlotte – all 121 pieces of it.
“People don’t understand all of the thought and work that goes into these places,” says Nicole Bartlett, Public Art Program director for the Arts & Science Council.
“It doesn’t just happen. Our city and county work really hard.”
Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the Public Art Ordinance, a city/county project that requires 1 percent of the cost of certain capital improvement projects be spent on art.
A combined effort of the Public Art Commission and the Arts & Science Council, the celebration will include two events, a “Finding Your Part in Public Art” scavenger hunt and a talk by Ed Lebow, director of the Phoenix Public Art Program.
Not all of the art you see in public spaces came from the Public Art Ordinance. The art at Lynx light-rail stations is part of a program called CATS Arts in Transit, and the private group The Queen’s Table paid for others.
There’s also public art from the 1 percent rule that came before the ordinance was passed.
What the ordinance did was formalize setting the money aside and form a commission to oversee using it. Since the ordinance went into effect in 2003, $5.3 million has been spent on 65 completed artworks. They range from $381,000 for the Ed Carpenter airport light sculpture, “Ascendus,” to $12,000 for “Fire Into Water,” an etched glass work by George Handy at the West Mallard Creek Road Fire Station.
“We want to design our built environment to be somewhere we love to be,” says Bartlett. “We don’t love to be at the strip mall.
“When we’re using our taxpayer dollars to create public spaces, we owe it to ourselves to do it well and make it some place we can be proud of.”
Ah, yes, that taxpayer dollar issue. It’s one part of the program that is misunderstood, says Robert Bush, the interim president of ASC.
People sometimes think the art program adds to the cost of city/county projects.
“It doesn’t,” he says. “If the 1 percent wasn’t spent on something that would engage people, it would be spent on something else. It’s not an additive.”
Art is controversial, of course. Over the years, the program has come under fire. For instance, in 2005, then-Mayor Pat McCrory criticized art for the uptown arena and complained about a lack of communication with the arts commission. The city council later rejected a proposal that would have reduced the 1 percent provision.
Individual pieces of art under the program also have drawn criticism, such as a giant mechanical hand at the Shuffletown Sportsplex, installed in 2009.
Bush expects that to happen, he says. Art is designed to inspire reaction.
“Just like in any museum, there will be things you like and things you don’t like, and that’s part of the process.”
The public art ordinance itself came out of controversy, Bartlett said. In the late 1980s, when the Charlotte Coliseum was being built, there was money for art to go in front of the building.
A proposed statue by Joel Shapiro, internationally renowned for rectangular works that evoke movement, got nicknamed “The Headless Gumby” and was derided, particularly by two radio personalities and an Observer humor columnist.
The Shapiro work was canceled, and the Coliseum ended up with a landscape sculpture, a series of bushes trimmed into the shape of balls, by artist Maya Lin.
The controversy, though, galvanized the idea of formalizing a commission to reduce politics in the choice of art, says Bartlett. The commission puts together a panel of art experts and architects and people who will use the space, such as firefighters at a new fire station.
“There are people who understand art, not just art in a museum, but art in a public space,” she says. “And they’re very different things. It’s about creating whimsy, creating experiences, documenting history, creating public pride. There are people who are overseeing these things.”
For instance, a police substation on Wendover Road sports two tall sculptures by the steps. Called “Pinecones,” they incorporate bits of china and pottery brought by people in the surrounding neighborhood.
“It can start to be the small impetus to show that investment is coming into the neighborhood,” says Bartlett. “It sticks with people.”
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