Ithaca Times

Public Art Commission seeks to add paint to electrical boxes in Ithaca

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Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 12:00 am

Public art in Ithaca may soon have another canvas to cover.

At the meeting of Common Council on Dec. 7, members of the Public Art Commission were present to thank Mayor Peterson for her support of public art, giving an update on their current mural project, and mentioning that another phase of their effort to bring art into the public domain was underway in their effort to paint city electrical boxes.

"Our mission as a public art commission is to bring art into the public domain and to make recommendations to Common Council on particular projects that come up," explained Sally Grubb, a member of the Public Art Commission, "So in 2008 when money suddenly dried up, it was becoming increasingly difficult to provide funds for art, because so many people think art is a luxury as opposed to some of us think that art is absolutely a basic, core part of our life. If you take all art of everything, one's life becomes a really gray depressing place to be. So we've been looking at ways to keep new art in the public sphere without having to ask for large amounts of money. This is why we came up with the mural project. Because by the nature of street art- it tends to be ephemeral, much less expensive than someone sitting down to paint a commission portrait or creating a piece of sculpture."

Two years ago, the commission began the process to get approval for painting murals on both city- and county-owned walls that were normally the subject of graffiti. The process for getting approval for "something like that," said Grubb, could take months.

"We decided that if we got permission ahead of time for creating murals and street art on city property, down the road when we got funds or materials or grants or whatever we wouldn't have to go through the lengthy approvals process again," said Grubb, "But that's where the whole project started. And since that time, we've been working on identifying artists."

Painting murals on the electric boxes falls under the umbrella of permission that was given for the painting of murals in 2010. The Public Art Commission is currently looking to paint around 22 city-owned boxes in the downtown area, as well as some that extend into residential areas.

"We're right at the beginning of that project," said Grubb, "We've got permission to put murals on the electric boxes. What we now have to do is work on identifying artists and most important securing funding to do it."

One of the requirements connected to the permission that was given by the city is that the commission must get the support of the local community where the proposed mural would be going up. For the Pierre Roti mural that was painted on the parking structure across from city hall as part of the commission's mural project, city employees were interviewed. But interviewing the community around the city's electrical boxes is a little more tricky.

"It's so difficult to say who is the community around the electrical box," said Grubb, "The Downtown Ithaca Alliance covers a very large area of the area in which these electrical boxes are placed, so we will be working with them."

When the electrical box lies in a residential neighborhood, the local residential association would be consulted, said Grubb.

"We haven't yet exactly worked out how we'll do it," said Grubb of the community outreach portion, "but we would probably say this is what we're planning to do- here are three artists we're working with. Which artist would you like for your particular electric box? And they'd have the opportunity to see the different style they do and may say ‘oh we like this one'."

Meetings will be open to the public as the process moves forward, and the commission is hoping to get a website going that is separate from the city website where members of the public could view the commission's current projects and learn more about them- like the electrical boxes.

"I think that one of the things is that one just doesn't notice them [the boxes] until they get covered with graffiti," explained Grubb, "They're anonymous and they're not that big, and then they suddenly get covered with really unacceptable graffiti. And because of the local city rules, they have to be cleaned up. What we're planning is to have some really vibrant art on [them]."

The problem in pushing the project forward remains funding. The commission is seeking for a vehicle to make it possible for members of the public to make tax exempt donations. The ball park cost for painting an electrical box, said Grubb, is $300, which she admitted sounds expensive. But, she pointed out, if you go into any store at this time of year and look at something close to the size of an electric box, you would be looking at a similar price tag. If you were to go into a gallery, the cost for artwork would probably be $500 dollars and up, and an electric box has four sides. The cost would cover materials as well as an honorarium for the artist.

"Because the electrical boxes are a small and coherent piece we decided that that was something that we could move forward on comparatively quickly," said Grubb, "because we get a small amount of money and we can paint one or two. If we get a large amount of money we can paint 22. If we're going to paint something like at a mural on the curved wall of the old library building, which is one of the county buildings we've got permission for painting a mural on- we're looking at a much larger sum of money."

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