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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

Make an Impression and Know about Reno’s Arts

A friend recently hosted a dinner party while her mother was visiting Reno from Cleveland. It was a lovely evening with delicious dishes and great conversation. I always enjoy chatting with out-of state visitors. It’s a way to stay connected with what’s going on in the arts in the rest of the country. I also get to find out what they think of my city.

Diana lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Although she didn’t know about Corky & Lenny’s, which, in my opinion, is one of the best Jewish delis around, she knew what was going on in her arts community.

She told me about the 20-foot-tall outdoor chandelier that recently was positioned in Cleveland’s theater district and hangs 24 feet over a the area’s main intersection. We then talked about the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra and its music director, Franz Welser-Möst. But she was most excited to tell me about the Cleveland Museum of Art’s recent expansion and renovation, which added more than 35,000 square feet of gallery space, including Gallery One, a high-tech space that features interactions with top pieces of art. Plus, the museum is free.

Diana most definitely wasn’t a philistine and was proud to tell me all that was happening culturally in her city that sits on the southern shore of Lake Erie. But she also enjoyed coming to Reno and said she even has encouraged her friends to visit the Biggest Little City.

Really, I asked. What impresses you most about Reno? The public art, she said.

Explore and learn

I’ve been thinking about my conversation with Diana and wondering what Renoites would say about their city’s arts and culture scene.

When I asked one of the women running for mayor that question, I knew she wasn’t getting my vote when the only thing she talked about was what happens in July. One month doesn’t make a year and it definitely doesn’t make an arts city.

That’s the main reason for Art Spot Reno. We want to celebrate Reno as the spot for year-round art. And if you don’t know what’s going on, we’ve made it very easy to find out with a comprehensive calendar. Please use it and explore your city.

When you go on those summer vacations and someone asks about Reno, I want you to be as impressive as Diana was about her city.

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Here are a few things that impress me about Reno’s arts and culture scene:

  • The city has more than 170 pieces of public art and its collection is commensurate to a city the size of Sacramento. The city’s sculpture collection includes many national names, including Michael Heizer’s “Perforated Object” in front of the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse on South Virginia. Heizer is known for the 340-ton boulder that sits on the grounds at the L.A. County Museum of Art.
  • The Nevada Museum of Art is the only accredited art museum in the state.
  • Because Reno is the gateway to Burning Man, the city has become a key location for pre-building and staging playa art. Artists and builders around the world are watching how Reno is doing this.

 

Geralda Miller, Curator

Geralda Miller, Curator