From the moment we notice those first signs of spring, Austinites head outside to soak up the glorious rays of sun before the all-too-familiar Texas summer heat creeps up and drives us back to the comfort of air conditioning and shade.
In those precious weeks when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, and not a single outdoor activity or locale seems uninviting, we pay closer attention to those perfect al fresco opportunities Austin has to offer.
Some head to the pool, others stroll through nature or down the city’s scenic streets, and, thanks to Art In Public Places, others soak in the city’s artistic side through the hundreds of sculptures, prints, murals and other installations scattered throughout the city. A citizen initiative, Art In Public Places, uses two percent of eligible capital improvement project budgets to help integrate art into Austin’s landscape. The program, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, was the first of its kind in Texas. Beginning in 1985 with a single piece of public art, AIPP has since expanded to include more than 200 commissioned works in more than 150 different facilities across the city.
According to Meghan Wells, the administrator of Art In Public Places, the program is not only meant to enhance the aesthetic quality of our public space, but also to create an identity for Austin and to invite both citizens and tourists alike to interact with the city in a new way. “We know that art as an economic driver is a really viable way to foster job growth and to bring tourism dollars into the city, so we’ve invested heavily in our own creative community,” she says.
Each commissioned piece is designed with a specific capital improvement project in mind. The artists – the majority of whom are local – are given a set of thematic parameters and then work closely with the construction and design teams to integrate their artwork into the project from the get-go rather; that way, there’s less risk of the art being considered a standalone piece or an afterthought. By doing that, the art commissioned through Art In Public Places is seen as a fixture, as if it were meant for that location alone.
Take, for example, Open Room Austin: the larger-than-life picnic table and lamps located just off North Lamar and Cesar Chavez is one of the program’s most recognizable pieces. Created by Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt of R&R Studios in Miami, Open Room Austin is unique to Art In Public Places, as it is one of the program’s few social sculptures – in other words, art that requires the public’s interaction in order to reach its potential. “It’s been a great addition to our collection, and it seems to really fit with how people want to use that space,” Wells says. “Every time I drive by Open Room Austin, people are enjoying it, which is a real testament to the city’s interest in adapting something for how they want it to be used. That’s exactly what it’s made for.”
While many of the works included as part of Art In Public Places are equally visible around the city, not are as highly recognized as Open Room Austin. Cyclical Interplay, for example, is one of Art In Public Places’ most recently completed works. Located at the Auditorium Shores trailhead off Riverside Drive, the kinetic piece is designed to reflect climate change in central Texas. It features a series of curved steel fins that move daily at dusk and are intended to physically represent the data collected by a nearby rain gauge.
Social sculpture: art that requires public interaction in order to reach its full potential.
“As the fins rotate each day, their profiles form the shape of vessels, and those vessels rest in a position that indicates fullness or emptiness,” Wells says.
The artists, Andrew Bellatti Green and Adam Pyrek, intended for the position of the outside fins to reflect rainfall data and that of the inside fins to reflect water levels in the Lake Buchanan system, allowing it to serve as educational as it is beautiful.
What’s particularly mesmerizing about a kinetic sculpture like Cyclical Interplay is that its constant transformation gives passersby new opportunities to interpret the piece’s meaning in an unexpected way. “Once you know the piece is there, you’ll start to recognize its changing shape,” Wells says. “It’s a reflection of how we hope that things are improving, but a reminder that change doesn’t occur overnight.”
Open Room Austin and Cyclical Interplay are positive reminders that art isn’t always something to be displayed on a wall, but rather, can be interacted and engaged with. As technology becomes further ingrained in society than ever before, Art In Public Places finds it crucial to explore new ways for the community to not only interact with art, but also to connect it with Austin’s growing tech presence.
This year’s anniversary piece was the perfect way to do that. To honor the 30 years the program has been bringing culture to the city, the program commissioned a special temporary piece called Hello Lamp Post. This work, which ran from February to April, was an SMS-based project that allowed people to interact with the city’s inanimate objects – lampposts, bus stops, bridges, and statues – through text message. It made Austin only the second city in the world (following Bristol in the UK) to have “playable art.”
According to Wells, the beauty of an installation like Hello Lamp Post is that it has enabled AIPP to spread interaction with the project throughout the entirety of the city.
More than just expanding the reach of local art, Hello Lamp Post served as an important reminder: the art of today is not the same as the art of 30 years ago.
“Sometimes we are restricted geographically by the placement of our artwork and people don’t get to see things outside their commute area, but this was a way from people in any area of Austin to participate and have a shared experience,” she says. In a few months’ time, the project saw 2,500 players send more than 18,000 text messages to 1,800 different objects throughout the city. It should come as no surprise that the beloved statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn at Auditorium Shores received the highest number of text messages – after all, who wouldn’t want to have a conversation with the recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee?
More than just expanding the reach of local art, Hello Lamp Post served as an important reminder: the art of today is not the same as the art of 30 years ago. It, much like the city it’s located in, has transformed, and Art In Public Places is working to expose the community to its latest incarnations – and to reflect upon itself in the process. As Wells sees it, Austin is facing unprecedented growth, and Art In Public Places gives people a way to relate to the change occurring throughout the city.
“It can be overwhelming to see your city change so quickly, but artwork can serve as a common denominator between a new building and an old site. So whether it was created in 1985 or 2015 and beyond, we want people to feel like they’ve got a special relationship with a part of Austin through the artwork there.”
And with majority of Art In Public Places’ pieces serving as permanent fixtures throughout the city, our city may continue to change, but we can rest assured those cultural pieces never will.
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