Art belongs to the people. Within any community, it can serve as a tool to engage residents in healthy dialog, to both stir and support the public’s sense of place, and to evoke powerful emotional responses by those who come into contact with it, thereby helping to arouse and develop the artist within each viewer. Some would argue that having access to such kinds of cultural exchange is one of our essential human rights.
Historically, public art—that is, art nurtured by and made available for the public—broadcasted to a populace. But in recent years, the public has become more and more integral in the art-making process itself; through dialog and planning in the early phases of its conception.
It’s this exact kind of dialog that gets Beth Ragel excited. As Milwaukie’s Community Services Program Coordinator, Ragel has served as the “can-do” leader of the city’s arts committee artMOB (art–Milwaukie on Board) since its inception in 2008. Thus, the seven member committee’s primary focus is on enriching the community by encouraging, promoting, and facilitating the arts. They do this by connecting artists with resources, and connecting the City of Milwaukie with art.
“We have such fabulous committee members,” says Ragel. “They’re incredibly sensitive and articulate… [they] really care about Milwaukie and the neighborhood associations—people trust them.”
Because this level of trust is imperative to the success of any public arts program, the artMOB committee has worked extensively to reach out to the community by opening up the conversation to Miwaukie’s vibrant neighborhood associations, its residents and business owners.
“One of the first things the committee decided is that they didn’t want to appear exclusive,” continues Ragel. “One of the mistakes that often happens with public art is that it’s kind of done behind a veil.”
And this is where smaller communities like Milwaukie have a big advantage over their larger siblings. Fewer residents equals easier access. And easier access to a community’s citizens, means a greater opportunity for starting healthy conversations about the arts. Because the chief role of public art is to advance discussion and invite participation, what better place for public art to thrive than Milwaukie’s “living room” walls?
Small cities have another unique position—their visual landscapes usually aren’t over saturated and cluttered by the multitude of advertising signage and fixtures that dominate most metropolitan areas. This in turn creates greater potential for a small city’s economic development in association with the arts.
An advertisement on a billboard has one purpose: to sell a product or service, thereby generating revenue for the company who placed it there. But a mural painted on the side of a business, or a sculpture located in a garden at City Hall, presents a win-win situation for everyone involved: artists, residents, and the businesses that populate a city. Public art attracts attention and draws visitors, but also educates/informs, and brings a community together. That’s a benefit advertising can never claim.
The scope of public art has widened in recent years to include not only site-specific pieces staged in the public domain, but also to encompass works of art produced and intended for exhibition in any public space, including publicly accessible buildings. artMOB is ahead of the curve; not only in the diverse plans it’s already spearheaded, but also in the extensive research it has done to model initiatives after other successful programs in the region, such as Lake Oswego’s “Gallery Without Walls,” and Estacada’s thriving ArtBack mural program and Summer Celebration.
The committee’s expansive exhibits and programs over the last four years have been well received: the City Hall Sculpture Garden, art shows in collaboration with paragons of the business community like Dark Horse Comics, youth programming such as the “Landscape of Our Lens,” show which brought together Milwaukie’s high school photographers and poets in an open ekphrastic exchange, and now the Milwaukie Mural Arts Program (MMAP), which hopes to be through its nascent planning stages by summer, 2012.
It’s safe to say that public art has found a new, and welcoming home in the city of Milwaukie. And with the advent of light rail, the many downtown revitalization endeavors, and the riverfront project, it seems like only a matter of time before the committee’s “loftier” goals, like building a center for the arts, will be realized.
Bring It Home! Fancy that stunning installation in the City Hall Sculpture Garden? Lucky you: every piece in the rotating exhibit is on loan, and for sale. Just contact Beth Ragel for pricing, and it’s yours!
Get Arts Active Contact staff liason Beth Ragel to learn more about how you can get involved with artMOB’s upcoming projects: 503.786.7568
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