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Drive-by art? Yes, we can, says one artist

When Chapel Hill officials floated the idea last year of a big "gateway sculpture" for the median of U.S. 15-501 at the edge of town, they got a quick answer from the state Department of Transportation:

No.

After all, DOT engineers had enough on their hands without risking the physical and political hazards of public art.

What if it fell over and hurt somebody? What if it were so attractive that it made drivers stop and stare - or so ugly that it just made them mad?

Raleigh artist Thomas Sayre, commissioned to design a signature piece for Chapel Hill, helped transportation officials adopt a broader view about public art without compromising their concern for public safety.

A few senior DOT officials nodded in agreement when Sayre talked up the appeal of roadside art at a Raleigh conference in January. Meanwhile, DOT was fielding proposals from Winston-Salem to integrate art into the design of several new freeway bridges, and from Charlotte to add artistic lighting to an uptown bridge.

"They all converged on DOT at the same time, with a relatively new DOT secretary (Gene Conti) who said, 'We need to respond, rather than say no to everything,'" Sayre said.

Now, after working for the past few months with Sayre and a committee of arts boosters, the DOT has developed a nine-page policy for saying yes.

The state Board of Transportation is expected to approve the new guidelines next month for towns and other agencies that want to sponsor works of art on the public right of way controlled by DOT. Along with free-standing work on road shoulders and median strips, it covers art that could be integrated into the construction of bridges, bus shelters, walls and other transportation structures.

"It's a philosophical sea change for DOT just to begin to consider that art has a place in the transportation system," said Jeffrey York, Chapel Hill's public art administrator.

"Many communities across the country have done this successfully," Sayre said. He's known for building 24-foot-tall concrete rings along a greenway at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, and has also created pieces at airports and alongside tracks and highways in other cities.

Don Lee, who heads DOT's roadside environmental unit, told transportation board members last week that the state would not take on the financial or creative responsibility for roadside art.

The local government sponsor would be required to design the art, certify that it is acceptable to the community and safe for drivers and pedestrians, and cover all construction and maintenance costs.

DOT reserves the right to remove artwork that poses a hazard or becomes an eyesore.

"Certainly the department doesn't want to get into determining what's art and what's not art," said Ralph Womble, a Winston-Salem arts patron and Board of Transportation member. "It's the people in the community deciding on some type of art, and state property being utilized in that way."

Chapel Hill wants Sayre to design a sculpture for the broad grassy median of DOT's so-called Superstreet intersection, an elongated roundabout on U.S. 15-501 at Erwin Road and Europa Drive.

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