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Boston Society of Architects

Temporary Feature

License to thrill

Temporary art provokes and energizes the public canvas

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Anna Kaertner sits in an illuminated swing, part of a Lawn on D art installation designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, outside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Photo: Justin Saglio

My generous side thinks we should be grateful. For years, Boston has treated public art the way C. Delores Tucker approached rap: with fear and ignorance. We offered a broad palette of . . . bronze, from Horace Mann to Yaz. And when we weren’t arresting artists as they arrived at their own openings — sorry, Shepard Fairey — we were at least making it incredibly difficult for them to find places to create dynamic public works.

That may be changing. There was that man in shorts appearing on the side of the shimmering former Hancock tower, and there’s the ever-evolving mural canvas in Dewey Square. Let’s not forget those glowing oval swings that popped up in a park on D Street and last year’s most glorious marker of spring’s arrival: Janet Echelman’s colorful web rising over the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

It’s enough to make you think Boston has turned an important corner.

But before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s consider what’s at play. The works noted above are all attention grabbing, progressive, and transformative. They’re also temporary. And that’s the key. Boston is not Austin, Seattle, or Chicago, where money and support are plentiful for permanent artworks. Those cities have clearly figured out that public pieces, which introduce art to those who don’t regularly meander through museum galleries, are not just electives. They’re essential. Boston may not truly understand that. Consider the MBTA’s decision to initially slice art out of the budget of its Green Line extension project. But we are getting better.

Echelman notes that her piece, which cost $1 million and turned heads all last summer, was called As If It Were Already Here. “That’s why I used that title,” she says. “People had been complaining for years about what wasn’t here. Suddenly, it was here.”

What did the Brookline native, whose work has been installed around the globe, take the success of her project to mean? “Nothing is impossible anymore,” she says.

Yes, this is now a city with an arts czar, a mayor willing to don a Guster hoody, and more than $1 billion of museum expansions in its rear view. It’s also a city with much to overcome. When I called the Boston Art Commission at City Hall, director Karin Goodfellow — who has been admirably trying for years to add some balance to the city’s bronze-centric collection — was proudly talking up Crisscross Signal Spire. That permanent, interactive sculpture by Meejin Yoon AIA of Höweler + Yoon Architecture recently went up in Dudley Square. What’s more, she said, it represented the most the city has ever spent ($400,000) on a piece of public art.

I congratulated her and then Googled the price tag for Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, the iconic “bean” in the center of Chicago: $23 million. If we can’t compete with cities like Chicago, we can at least focus on what we are doing well. Enter temporary works.

Curator Pedro Alonzo says the climate in Boston for doing short-term projects has improved in recent years. He should know. In 2009, Alonzo curated Fairey’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) show and found himself scrambling around for wall spots so the artist could install his trademark graffiti-inspired work in a public place. He found it far easier to work on the recent installation at the former Hancock tower by French artist JR. Alonzo has also been hired by The Trustees of Reservations for a multisite, multiyear project launching this year.

The temporary nature of the works, Alonzo says, doesn’t just make them easier to accomplish. They can also be more daring. “It forces people to be more tolerant because it will go away,” he says. “And it allows for newer work to come out, too.”

Take the Dewey Square wall, on the side of a Big Dig ventilation building, which the ICA launched in 2012 with Os Gêmeos; the Brazilian twins painted a colorful image of a boy in pajamas. The piece garnered raves from observers, who passed by it during the morning commute or gathered under it for lunch on warm summer days. It also generated much conversation, particularly after a local TV station’s message board prompted some odd and misguided interpretations of the boy as a terrorist. Dewey Square has remained a revolving canvas, with the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the MIT List Visual Arts Center taking turns with projects.

And the beauty of a great temporary project is that it doesn’t disappear at the end of its run. It has staying power in our collective memories — even if it’s up for just a few days.

Remember Krzysztof Wodiczko’s 1998 piece on the Bunker Hill Monument? For three days, the Polish artist projected the stories of three mothers whose children were murdered onto the historic obelisk. It was daring and heartbreaking, and it transformed one of Boston’s most familiar tourist spots. ICA director Jill Medvedow, who curated the project, references it in relation to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates, the 23 miles of saffron-colored “gates” installed in Central Park for two weeks in 2005.

“People had not seen the park in that way or the monument in that way,” says Medvedow. “These are extraordinary works that got realized with incredible vision and an amazing ability to execute in real life and had tremendous impact on where we live.”

During our chat, I brought up the MBTA’s mess of an attempt to cancel the artist contracts for the Green Line extension project late last year, which the agency then reversed, sort of. (Artworks planned for other lines were apparently canceled with less publicity.) I’d expected Medvedow, such a public art advocate, to be outraged by the idea of cutting back on something with such a small impact financially on a project that’s going to cost billions. Instead, she shifted the conversation.

In recent years, Medvedow says she has found herself thinking more expansively about the meaning of public art. It’s not enough to simply add a piece in a park or a subway station or a building. There’s a larger universe to consider, she says. The public realm needs trees along walkways, better public transportation systems, and other amenities to make city living more livable.

“Sometimes, I think the answer would be an incredible Anish Kapoor,” Medvedow says, “and sometimes I think it would be a beautifully designed park.”

She’s right, of course, except for one important detail. Where’s our bean? How do we, as a city, not only accept but also demand that our leaders find enough money so that we can create public art that’s not simply there but is a world-class destination? The Boston Art Commission is at least trying. Recently added board members include MFA contemporary art chair Edward Saywell, Massachusetts College of Art and Design curator Lisa Tung, and Boston Cyberarts founder George Fifield. A pioneering figure in Boston, Fifield has been programming the LED display at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston, a spot that’s both taken for granted and seen by tens of thousands every month.

It isn’t going to be easy, particularly with a governor who has already vetoed a bill that would grant just a small percentage of the amount used on construction projects to the arts. But with a little creativity — and the right choices —  Boston can still have a distinctive public art program, even if the canvas keeps changing.