A wild dinosaur rears its head next to a volcano spewing lava on Aurora and Buffalo. A strange new tree is growing on the corner of Court and Cayuga, like a telephone pole, but with a strange bulge like a wooden telephone box. A block of cheese sits across from Greenstar, like a delivery to be put away. And on Court and Tioga, the friendly-looking Renewbot plans its ecological takeover. What’s happened to Ithaca? Perhaps the Public Art Commission can explain.
Each one of these pieces is part of PAC’s 21 Boxes exhibit, where 21 different artists painted city machinery across the city. There was no common theme; each artist’s imagination was set free. Additionally, the boxes spread far away from downtown, out into more residential districts.
“We’ve tended to be very eclectic, not very thematic,” explained Gary Ferguson, who serves on PAC and works at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. “Art is a crucial and important part of a downtown experience. One of our benchmarks is that we’d like anyone who comes downtown to experience art in some way, every time. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, we’d like you bump into art.”
It’s certainly getting harder and harder not to notice PAC’s work. From the 21 Boxes project, which will possibly expand to include all 40 boxes in Ithaca, to recent murals, PAC and the artists behind the art have been busy.
Four new murals have either just been completed or are in the works. These include Kellie Cox-Brady’s black-eyed susan mural on the Seneca Street garage, towering over Collegetown Bagels; Brandon Lazore’s mural of a modern Haudenosaunee longhouse on Seneca Street; Alice Muhlback’s mural on Spencer Street; and William Schlaw’s candelabra mural near Cinemapolis.
“My personal hope in being on PAC is that we can get as many murals as possible in the city of Ithaca as possible, as quickly as possible, as a way of giving the community a little bit of a shocking community,” said Caleb Thomas, a member of PAC.
Thomas has worked extensively with Lazore and others to encourage Native American art in the community.
“Lazore is an Onondaga artist. He’s painted the interior of a modern day longhouse,” Thomas said. “His design has five figures, representing the five points of the Onondaga confederacy: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk. These five figures in the longhouse are all modern. That’s because Brandon wanted people to know that this isn’t just about our history. ‘We’re still here,’ he said.”
The Committee has 10 members, including seven appointed by the mayor and three serving as liaisons to different aspects of Ithaca government. One liaison is from Common Council; another from the Board of Public Works; and the third from the City’s Planning Department. Each person on the committee brings a different perspective on what public art means, and works in different ways to coordinate the art that is put up around the city. While many of the members are artists, many coordinate with other members of the community to bring different perspectives to the art that’s exhibited.
“When I was teaching, I brought in a lot of art with my students and it seemed to be a really good way of getting them to express themselves,” said Samantha Hillson, a member of PAC. “Overall I think it can really improve the health of a community if there’s vibrant, colorful art around. If people feel like they care about where they live, and make it more attractive with art, it just makes for a stronger community.”
“Public art really enlivens the landscape, and is important for economic development too,” said Megan Wilson, a member of PAC and a planner with the City Planning Board. “It changes the perception of the area. It brightens it up and changes perceptions of safety and liveliness. It’s a real asset in areas that have a lot of foot traffic.”
“I hope that it inspires other kinds of creativity. It might not be art, but it might be something else,” Thomas added.
Based on these interpretations, each committee member can coordinate the art that gets placed around the city. Although the process for selecting art is the same for each location, some committee members are more active in some projects.
“Caleb Thomas was responsible for finding the funding for the new mural on the Seneca Street Bus Shelter,” noted Sally Grubb, a member of PAC, via email. “Jay Potter has worked to introduce visiting artists to local business people which has resulted murals being painted on Ithaca Bakery Building on Meadow Street, the building beside Agway on Meadow Street, and Lot 10 on Cayuga Street.”
In general, PAC will identify an area or a project, and will post a call for submissions on their website or on their Facebook page, Ithacans for Public Art (IPA). Artists can also offer their own ideas to PAC by emailing them; there’s a gallery of empty spaces on the Facebook page as well.
“You pretty much just come up with an idea and sell it to them,” said Kellie Cox-Brady, who recently completed the black-eyed susan mural on the Seneca Street garage. “They vote on it, and then it goes from there. It’s been this eight months for getting that mural processed — voting, submitting the proposal, all these other little things. And then raising the money, which there’s different ways to go about it. You can either wait for a grant, or the other option is to have a fundraiser, which I did. I’m super not patient, and because I really wanted to get it done and I was super excited, it worked out perfectly. Then in the last two weeks I painted that mural.”
Finding funding is often the most challenging part of the process. In the past, PAC was provided money to pay for the art and for its members, but over time membership has become a volunteer position and art has been funded by grants, both local and state or national. An important aspect of PAC’s collaboration with the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, the Community Arts Partnership, and other organizations is that they often collaborate to suggest and provide grants for artists.
“Funding is a big chunk of what we discuss and talk about,” Hillson said. “In the arts it’s always a struggle. We would like to be able to provide funding for artists to be able to do their work or at least cover their materials. Some artists definitely take the initiative to apply for grants or raise their own funds. It’s a combination of both—there can be a grant available, or artists will have their own funding. We are trying to stay on top of new grants that are available and when they’re due.”
“I also want artists to know that it’s a great way of donating time. If artists have a vision of how they would like to add to the community landscape, it’s an opportunity for them to put that out there,” Thomas added. “It might not be monetary outputs, but that can be a huge gain for the community. We’re all volunteers on PAC, and it’s nice that this is another way for people to volunteer in our community.”
he PAC was founded in 1988 as a way to celebrate Ithaca’s 100th year, and was originally known as the Arts and Culture Committee. The Committee was given a budget of $30,000 to plan events and fund art projects around the city.
“The Public Art Commission of the City of Ithaca was established in 1988 to contribute to the City of Ithaca’s vision of a model community — a great place to create, dream, live, learn, work and play - through the acquisition of art for public places,” said Grubb, who has been on the commission the longest of its current members.
Throughout the 1990s, the Committee sponsored several major art installations. These included Art Under Foot, a series of plaques on the previous Commons walkway, and the Sagan Planet Walk in collaboration with the Sciencenter, also on the Commons. The function of the Committee, as well as its name, shifted over time to allow for different functions. During the 2000s, the committee was restructured to have a stronger focus on a plan for the city’s public art, and in 2002 the PAC developed a Public Art Plan for the city of Ithaca.
“The Public Art Commission believes that the aesthetics of a community count, even in tough times, and that art as part of our surroundings is a right, not a frill. Aesthetic considerations and art should, therefore, be incorporated as part of basic city planning,” the Plan states.
The mission of the Plan was to include residents in the creation of public, outdoor art, and to directly involve artists in city planning.
“Since 2010 the PAC has worked in conjunction with the City, County and private property owners, to establish a series of partnerships between artists, building owners and funding agencies for the creation of murals and other street art for the beautification of public spaces throughout the City,” Grubb said.
In 2011, the PAC initiated the 21 Boxes project, which members cited as an important step in PAC’s history.
“Twenty-one Boxes was the first major project that they really took the lead on,” said Gary Ferguson of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. “You’re seeing this group getting more and more organized. They’re through the planning stage, they’re doing things. There’s a better sense of the planning process for getting art done.”
“People know about it, and it continues to be something that visitors like and community members ask are we going to do more,” Hillson said.
The 21 Boxes project also allowed the PAC to reach out to a number of local artists. Their enthusiasm drives the creation of new public art.
For Kellie Cox-Brady, her Box was her first piece of public art. Soon after that, she painted her mural.
“That was how I got into it, and now I’m really excited to do more murals, everywhere,” she said. “I want to do them literally everywhere!”