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.