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Boston Society of Architects

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Can Boston be a public art city?

Yes—if we take risks, flex new muscles, and forge creative alliances

Public Arts Kahlil Robert Irving Mobile Structure Relief Memorial Counterpublic2019

Kahlil Robert Irving, Mobile Structure; Relief & Memorial. Counterpublic 2019.

Despite its moniker, Boston is not the hub of the universe. Yet the city is ripe with potential to defy its own history and create a new model for connective experiences in our public spaces, one that transforms our landscapes and the ways in which we relate to one another as citizens in these divided times. Boston should fully embrace temporary public art as a catalyst for the cultural change we seek.

We have a ways to go. For starters, Boston must address its splintered cultural identity, funding structures, and fragile arts ecosystem that make it prohibitive for artists to thrive. These factors also point to why there are so few publicly accessible and contemporary permanent representations of Boston’s shared culture in our public spaces.

This can change. At Now + There, we’re using both the lack of a strong, unified cultural identity expressed in our public spaces and our natural human desire to connect with one another as a clarion call. As a nonprofit public art curator of temporary artworks, we’re using the power of art to shift how people see their city. To motivate people. To affirm the multiplicity of our cultures and cultural assets. To challenge biases and question the status quo. Ultimately, we’re using public art to elevate the economic and social health of our communities. The artwork itself may be temporary, but we believe it has an enduring impact.

Installations are temporary by design, lasting anywhere from six weeks to 18 months. If you don’t like it, it goes away—but it also has a sneaky, powerful way of suggesting what is possible.

Liz Glynn’s Open House, installed July through October 2018 at the end of Commonwealth Avenue Mall in Boston’s Kenmore Square, significantly changed how that end of the Arthur Gilman–designed mall, long cut off from its more beautiful and statued side and Olmstead’s Charlesgate Park by the Bowker Overpass, was used. For three months, students, tourists, residents, and even the area’s transient population coexisted within the tableau of a Louis XIV ballroom Glynn constructed with 26 pieces of cast concrete based on a ballroom designed by Stanford White.

The work created a backdrop for performances, grounding for a weekly meditation group, visual punch for a housing protest, and a safe space for gathering—deterring drug trafficking for its duration. But perhaps its two most lasting impacts were suggesting to future designers how the mall could be reimagined and bolstering the mission of the young nonprofit Charlesgate Alliance, which is to knit Charlesgate back together.

A multiton concrete living room doesn’t just appear in a city park overnight. It takes radical collaboration. In the case of Open House, partners included the Boston City Park Department, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Friends of the Public Garden, local businesses (from a hotel to a family-run pub), and Boston University. Unlike top-down planning exercises, producing temporary public art can feel like practicing democracy: of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Temporary public art like the examples just described motivates us to flex new muscles. It asks us to embrace things that might seem risky or push past our personal comfort zones.

Nick Cave and his multilocation project Augment does this very thing. More than 1,000 inflatable lawn ornaments—those boisterous holiday decorations often found on suburban lawns—come together in a “visually euphoric cloud of shared culture,” as Cave calls it. A viewer entering Boston’s historic Cyclorama in the South End for this free exhibition may see a bunny being hugged by Captain America while an eagle’s talons come out of the side of Star Wars’ R2D2, who seems ready to pounce on a turkey. Sourcing directly from pop culture, Augment—open through September 13—is immediately recognizable to an intergenerational, multiethnic audience. It creates poignant moments of exhilaration and inspiration while also calling into question what brings lasting joy.

Augment, Nick Cave. The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Melissa Ostrow Photography

On September 14, the work will ask Bostonians to redefine who gets to produce art, who has access to participate in it, and where we feel most comfortable doing all of the above. The sculpture will be carried via a jubilant community parade to Upham’s Corner, in Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston that has long suffered from transit disinvestment, rampant vacant commercial space, traffic congestion, and transportation inefficiencies; it has recently been designated an Arts and Innovation District by the City of Boston. Once in Upham’s, the sculpture will be reassembled as an installation that pushes out of the windows and doors of a vacant building. Surrounding it will be a building wrap designed with local artists and community collage makers that reflects the vibrancy of Upham’s and hearkens its bright future.

Like so many other citizens across the nation who care about connecting and healing in public spaces, Now + There is using temporary public art to disrupt our public spaces and celebrate the possible. Call us what you will—artists, landscape architects, urban planners, placemakers, cultural foot soldiers, community activists, social researchers. We come from a long Boston lineage including, most recently, the Reclamation Artists and Fort Point artists who forged a new style of land and protest art in the 1990s and 2000s; and we are not alone today as we partner with Design Studio for Social Intervention, the City of Boston, and others. But we must also look outward for inspiration.

Joseph del Pesco and Jon Rub. Monuments, Ruins, and Forgetting. Counterpublic 2019
Demian DinéYazhi´. Falling is not Falling but Offering. Counterpublic 2019.

Today, biennials and triennials are multiplying the impact that art can have via concentrated, temporary installations. Take, for instance, Counterpublic, a new triennial in St. Louis run by The Luminary, formed partially in response to police brutality and as a means of building a new future. Counterpublic took over a 12-block radius of St. Louis last spring and summer, offering free, cutting-edge contemporary art to imagine a new future for a particular neighborhood. According to its founders, Counterpublic “aims to advance towards counter-futures, seeing in the complexities and collectivities of this already-existing place a future public possible.”

Art that illuminates and art that provokes alternative designs: Can we do this in Boston? Absolutely.

In 20 years, there is one Boston characteristic I hope is ingrained in our production of public art—that of the hardened Yankee who doesn’t give up. It’s my hope that we’ve poured enough concrete, inflated enough sculptures, paraded frequently (without a sports team), and sparked enough joy that Boston stands tall as a public art city; a destination for tourists seeking innovative experiences and citizens sharing an exuberantly inclusive culture.