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Public Art: Time-Place-Meaning

It’s no secret that I enjoy going to Burning Man. If the Black Rock Desert dries in time, this will be my tenth consecutive year attending the event. It was the large-scale art installations that were so alluring that I looked forward to returning each year, and still do. I’m awestruck by the massive sculptures – some shooting fire, others are intricately lit and dance with LED light patterns. It’s a playground of spectacular art installations that allow the 70,000 people who attend the weeklong event to become physically or emotionally engaged. While taking a group last week on a tour of Reno’s downtown public art, I commented that I believed Burning Man was a good example of how public art should be. Her response was – is it public art if you must buy a ticket to see it.

I love it when I’m challenged to think critically about something. Right now, I’m trying to understand public art and its meaning. My personal examination began last month after attending a Passover dinner where this was the topic of conversation while enjoying dessert. Our dinner was right after Reno City Council decided to temporarily place the Space Whale sculpture, which is a life-size, stain glass humpback whale and calf that was first seen last year at Burning Man, at City Plaza. The decision caused lots of chatter. I’ve heard and read pros and cons. Many asked why is the city using their money for this instead of using that money for something like repairing potholes. Reno Gazette-Journal newsman Mark Robison wrote a great article that explains that a small portion of room tax must go to public art. Whoever the person was that came up with the idea of using part of the tax money from tourists for the city’s public art, I applaud you! Others complained that Reno has too much Burning Man art. And to those people I suggest you come on one of our downtown public art tours we give and see the variety of public art that’s here. For a city our size, the collection is quite impressive. But back to Passover dessert.

I sat at the table across from Paul Baker Prindle, Director of Galleries at the University of Nevada, Reno. While enjoying my first blackberries of the season, Paul said he’d like to see more public art in Reno instead of outside art. Wait…what? I’d never heard this distinction before and now needed to understand the difference. It’s one with which I’m still trying to grasp. Public art engages the viewer whereas outside art is there simply to look at. Does this mean there has to be physical engagement or a visceral reaction for it truly to be considered public art? I’m reminded of a talk Paul hosted four years ago on public art. Women from Daily Tous Les Jours, a French Canadian design group, spoke about their installation in Montreal called 21 Swings. Twenty-one swings hung in Montreal’s entertainment district. When people would swing, instrumental sounds filled the air. As more people would swing, melodies and harmonies formed. It is described on their website as “an exercise in musical cooperation…thus stimulating a sense of community and ownership of space.” OK, now I’m having a lightbulb moment! Perhaps that’s the true meaning of public art — that which stimulates a sense of community and ownership of space.

I was awakened at that Passover dinner. I think my exploration and understanding of what is public art has only just begun. Paul is sharing books and articles with me on the topic and I now have plenty of reading material. It is with this acute lens that I will walk the Reno streets, examining our art collection. Does Reno’s public art stimulate a sense of community and ownership? Does it express our community values, heighten our awareness or challenge our assumptions? As you can tell, at this point I’ve still got more questions than answers on the topic. (I welcome your thoughtful comments.) What I do know for sure is that the quality of any artwork we have on display in our city must always be of the highest quality. And that doesn’t mean it has to be high art.

The Association for Public Art says:  Public art is a reflection of how we see the world – the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are.” Who are we, Reno? It’s obvious we’re becoming an arts hub and we’re the gateway to Burning Man and temporarily displaying some of its art. Now, let’s bring art like the 21 Swings here and develop a strong sense of play and community.

 

Geralda Miller, Curator

See It or Not: Art is Transforming Reno

I spent most of today getting a maker space ready for the big Gateway party tomorrow night. It’s been a non-stop week with meetings, art receptions and attending to a sick dog at home; and I wasn’t very excited about trying to transform a warehouse into a presentable party venue. But with the help of some super volunteers all pitching in, I gradually altered my mindset. By this afternoon, I looked around and was quite pleased with the day’s makeover. My personal shift has me pondering the concept of transformation – from attitudes, to structures, to place.

The Gateway Project is a group of nonprofits, community businesses and volunteers who are raising funds to bring Burning Man sculptures to Reno. This rag-tag group (I can say that since I’m one of them.) is part of Reno’s transformation. Last October, we held our inaugural event and raised money to bring Gary Gunderson’s “Pentamonium” to the Lear Theater grounds. Drive by that corner on any given day and you’ll likely see someone inspecting this interesting apparatus. And if you’re lucky, you’ll hear people playing the carillon with its harmonious bells. This year, the group is helping raise money to bring a Playa Park, containing three or four sculptures, to the Lear property. The park is the brainchild of Maria Partridge, an artist and the Artist Advocate for Burning Man. Partridge was awarded a $4,000 Global Arts Grant for her idea and this year’s reception and party is to help raise the rest of the funds needed to bring the sculptures to Reno. And while the beautiful, historical building remains shuttered, the grounds have come alive – transformed into a creative space.

And speaking of creative spaces, this year’s event is being held at Artech, a 61,000 square-foot warehouse in west Reno where artists are learning to be creative entrepreneurs. “We believe in the transformative power of creativity,” the website explains. It makes perfect sense to have this party at a facility that is practicing Burning Man’s ethos and contributing to Reno’s transformation.

If you were to stand at the Ralston Avenue/Riverside Drive junction for the next year with your eyes wide open, you would see the area’s creative metamorphosis. Not only will there be a Playa Park, but across the street will be a sculpture garden comprised of temporary artwork that was funded by the Rotary Club of Reno.  And because all the art is temporary, the area will be dynamic.

I believe this neighborhood is going to be the catalyst for positive change in downtown Reno. This art is going to shape the physical and social character of this area. Situated right on the Truckee River, more visitors and local residents – families, couples on date nights, even exercisers – will stroll this district, explore, and in some way be positively impacted.

Not that I’m comparing Reno to Washington, D.C, but I’ll never forget more than 20 years ago when I was in that magnificent city on business. It was the hot, sticky summer, so very early in the morning I would go out on my runs. One morning while running along the National Mall, I stopped suddenly and was taken aback when I came upon a garden filled with Henry Moore sculptures. I’m sure my heart rate remained elevated because of my excitement. I tell this story because I still remember that experience and that, undoubtedly, was an integral part of my personal creative transformation. And who knows, perhaps a playful piece that has touched the playa or some interesting work across the street in Bicentennial Park will place some very lucky people on a path of personal self transformation. The city already is on that path, whether it realizes it or not.

Geralda Miller, Art Spot Reno Curator

Geralda Miller, Art Spot Reno Curator

It’s Time To Build Reno as an Arts Destination

During my years working as a consultant in Ghana, West Africa, I learned about the Adinkra symbols used by the Akan tribe. One of my favorites is Sankofa, the image of a mythical bird whose body is facing forward while its head is looking backward. It means: we must look back to move forward. Like a bird, I must keep moving ahead but, every now and then, take a look back to make sure I’m on course and ensure a strong future.

Like the Akan tribe, Sankofa also is a positive message for community. It’s especially important for Reno, now that we’ve have a new mayor and two (and soon to be a third) new City Council members. For most people I’ve talked to, voting for Hillary Schieve was a vote against the status quo and the good ol’ boy system. It was a vote for a fresh mindset to keep moving the city ahead. The Reno public is the necessary institutional knowledge that will help make sure they stay on course and ensure a strong future.

I’m sure members of various civic groups already have been busy lobbying their causes. The arts community must do the same. Art Spot Reno’s message is: “Reno is poised to be a culturally vibrant city and a true arts destination. Artists bring income into our city and can improve the performance of local businesses. As an arts destination, our city will be filled with creative types and have an innovative environment that will lure more creative companies like Tesla.” I encourage everyone who loves Reno’s arts scene to deliver a similar message to city officials and letters to the editor. Make that your 30-second pitch!

In a previous blog, I wrote about a lecture delivered by Paul Baker Prindle, who is director of Sheppard Contemporary and University Galleries. He said we need to do more to create the conditions for creativity and the Department of Art and University Galleries is poised to play an integral part in helping Reno do that. Well Paul, it’s time! Let’s get busy! Let’s build a team comprised of the area’s creative minds and help develop Reno’s creative ecosystem. (P.S…Leave a message if you want to be part of this team.)

Let’s look back to move forward, Reno, and become a creative center where there will more possibilities for growth than we can imagine!

Geralda Miller, Curator

Geralda Miller, Curator

Words Have Power — BELIEVE

One of the reasons why I love going to Burning Man every year is to see the magnificent art that’s on display. I’m always astonished at the creativity, scale and workmanship of the hundreds of pieces that dot the Black Rock Desert. And every year I have my favorites.

Last year, one of them was the huge steel letters that spelled out the word BELIEVE. It wasn’t the first piece by Jeff Schomberg and fellow artist Laura Kimpton that had resonated with me. In 2009, they brought their first of five words, so far, to the playa. It was MOM. This was the first burn after my mother’s death and bicycling by that word, with its cutout birds, every day became part of my grieving process. And last year, after losing a job I had been in for 10 years, once again I was grieving. I know the word was created to fit perfectly with the Cargo Cult theme, but it also spoke perfectly to me. At a time when it was easy to be filled with pity and doubt, that sculpture told me to BELIEVE in myself and my capabilities. Those birds that set my mother free now were setting me free to move on to the next adventure.

 Does Reno BELIEVE?

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I saw the BELIEVE sculpture installed last month at City Plaza. I learned from Christine Fey, Reno’s resource development and cultural affairs manager, that Kate Thomas, the city’s budget director, had made it her mission to bring it to Reno, after seeing it last year on the playa. I don’t know what it was, but I think Ms. Thomas had her own visceral reaction to the sculpture.

People congregate around it, are photographing it, and talking about it.

“It has made a huge hit,” Fey said. “It’s very approachable.”

The sculpture will be dismantled Thursday, but the City of Reno has started a fundraising effort, asking for the community’s help to keep  BELIEVE in Reno. The piece cost $70,000, $10,000 a letter.

Fey thinks it’s doable and would only take a few private donors who would be willing to purchase a letter, or two.

For anyone who’s thinking about making a donation, know that Jeff is a Reno resident with a studio off Dickerson Road. Yes, Laura lives in California, but part of the dynamic design and manufacturing team lives here and builds here.

Let’s allow this word to inspire others to have an R. Kelly moment and say, “I believe I can fly.”

 

Geralda Miller, Art Spot Reno Curator

Geralda Miller, Art Spot Reno Curator