Thursday, November 1, 2012

Can art contribute to making Salem a more distinct and vibrant city?

You could argue that the state of a city’s public art is a barometer that indicates its economic health, its self-confidence, its cultural maturity and its civic pride.  In some cities, public artwork plays such a central role that individual works are even used to brand the city.  Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, uses the silhouette of Alexander Calder’s outdoor sculpture “La Grande Vitesse” as its logo.

Art, especially public art, can change the way we perceive a place.  It can even change our relationship with the place where we’ve lived for years.

Art can help a city to establish and express its identity.  This is particularly pertinent for Salem as it wrestles with the stereotypical image of itself as a dozy, bureaucratic backwater, perpetually in the shadow of Portland’s cultural bounty.

Murals, street art, and public sculpture allow a city to examine itself, to ponder its history and identity, and to project a positive vision of itself and its future.  It is not hard to visualize a city whose many murals and public sculptures embody its civic pride and proudly project its optimistic sense of self.  Unfortunately Salem is not currently such a city, but if our mayor and city council make the right decisions, it could become such a place.
How would we initiate such a transformation here in Salem?  The short answer is that it would require vision and leadership on behalf of the city and the active participation of a coalition of public and private sector entities and educational institutions.

It could, for instance, take the form of a series of collaborations between the city, the business community, the Marion County Historical Society and local artists, where they convince downtown business owners to provide outdoor wall space for the painting of murals that address Salem’s history and identity based on research and information provided by the State library or the Marion County Historical Society.  The Oregon Arts Commission could help to fund the project, and the Salem Art Association might want to contribute its expertise and the benefit of its connections with the region’s artists.  Similarly, local businesses under the leadership of the chamber of commerce could exhibit their civic spirit by paying for the cost of paint, while artists donate their time and their skill.  Local colleges, universities and schools could become involved through student participation either in terms of historical research or mural painting under the guidance of experienced artists.  All of these elements could combine to realize a vision of art as an endeavor that is collaborative, educational, socially involved, and that energizes and brings together a variety of community constituencies in the pursuit of a common goal.

The beauty of this kind of project is that it need not cost much, could be initiated relatively quickly, and would make an immediately visible difference.  We already possess the expertise and the resources.  We need only cultivate the will to employ them.

The city might begin by appointing a committee of volunteer stakeholders to focus on ways to make public art a central part of its urban revitalization process, and to spearhead the solicitation of proposals and the selection and approval of projects.  Such a committee could easily be organized and supported by the City of Salem’s Community Development Department’s Neighborhood Enhancement Division.

If we adopt this vision and strategy, our city can be transformed in short order to a place where public art enhances the quality of residents’ lives and projects the distinct identity and cultural vibrancy fit for a state capitol.

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