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Wide open spaces

When it comes to “public art,” Fort Wayne lags way behind

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-03-24


Human beings have been making art for 40,000 years for one main purpose: to build a community. I have been thinking about this a lot recently in reference to the Fort Wayne community and all of its current efforts at revitalization and revival. Of course “the Fort” has always had a wealth of public religious art in its many places of worship, and even has its fair share of public civic art like the many sculptures in our parks, the Allen County Public Library’s gallery, and the beauty of the courthouse’s interior downtown. But how do all these pieces and places represent you/us/the Fort Wayne Community?

That was one very important component of the current show at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Text and Textures II. Composed of pieces of art from the museum’s permanent collection, with poetry accompanying each piece, the pieces in Text and Textures II were chosen by 85 different members of the community. Museum curator Sachi Yanari-Rizzo had the daunting task of arranging all of these myriad chosen pieces into a comprehensive exhibition, and did so brilliantly. A few highlights from the show are the Vija Celmin’s “Ocean Surface,” chosen by 2nd District Person, Karen Goldner, and the David Hockney piece “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” which was chosen by Alan Nauts.

The genius of a show like this is the way it makes the viewer connect with the works. Knowing someone in community — someone who is not necessarily an “art expert” or authority in the field — chose a certain piece as being representative sort of humanizes the pieces, gives them a meaning far from the more institutional, didactic, sometimes even cold museum experience. It makes the viewer think, “Someone connected with this piece of art. Why shouldn’t I?”

This is exactly what makes the locations of public art so desirable to tourists, and has created the term “cultural tourism, “an increasingly dominant component of the tourism market.

You can’t avoid running into major art institutions, events, or pieces in some of the larger cities in the U.S. The “Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park, actually titled “Cloud Gate”, by Anish Kapoor; or Art Basel: Miami, the extremely popular contemporary art fair which takes place on Miami Beach every fall are wonderful examples of the ways in art which can effect a positive change in the life of a city.

While the art world juggernaut of New York City has, literally, thousands of institutions and programs supporting the arts and assisting them at reaching into the public realm, the past 20 years have seen a plethora of such entities sprouting up though out the U.S. in cities like Houston, Portland, and even the tiny city of Marfa, Texas, home to a little over two thousand people.

It is a shame that Fort Wayne is not capitalizing on these trends and supporting public art in a more active manner. Like most other Midwestern cities, Fort Wayne has a tremendous amount of space — cleared during the suburbanization of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s — that would make perfect locations for public art. In addition to this, the city of Fort Wayne has approximately 80 parks, many known only to those in the adjacent neighborhoods, and hardly any with public art.

Not only is the city missing out on these trends, but also the colleges and universities which call Fort Wayne home. The campuses, though not void of public art, are sparsely scattered, and with the exception of Mary Klopfer’s sculpture of the Virgin Mary on the University of St. Francis’ campus, none of these public pieces activate the characteristics of the space, or the people within it. With creativity being one of the most important aspects in an information economy, I would think that our city’s schools would give more thought to effective public art works that would help create students with the competitive edge of creativity when released in the job market.

With all of this being said, it doesn’t surprise me that Harrison Square and Renaissance Pointe, the projects that are being marketed as the things that will bring our city’s core into the forefront, have absolutely no public art components. As much as I would hope that the schools are researching which characteristics are of the most importance to potential employers, I would also like to hope that those charged with taking care of our city would be knowledgeable of all the current trends within the arts market, and the many cases of the arts ability to redeem the worst of urban deterioration.

Though the Fort Wayne Museum of Art has consistently applied itself to public art through the Mark di Suvaro large metal sculptures in front of it, the annual Chalk Walk during Three Rivers Festival, the River Greenway Mural, and innovative shows like Text and Textures II, it should not be burdened by solely filling the citizen’s need for public art. Thankfully, there has already been some talk of a Percent For Art program, but it will likely be a while, if it gains popularity at all.

Historically, our city has always had a strong creative passion. It should now be our goal to embrace this underlying talent and drive, and express it. As our city grows, diversifying further, it will be the role of public art, whatever the form it takes, to stitch its seams together. This sort of “diverse unification” will ensure our city and its people a meaningful place in a world that is consistently giving high value to creativity and change.

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