Tag Archives: public art

Public art!

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Vulcan, vulcan, vulcan

Great cities incorporate public art into the built environment; Birmingham has lagged others in this regard. Yesterday at Design Review Committee, the City took a step towards improving the situation with unanimous approval of a mural painting on the East wall of the Lichter’s Building (facing a parking lot fronting 19th Street North between 3rd and 4th Avenues, rendering above). The mural will be in the style of the late artist Andy Warhol, and will feature Vulcan, the symbol of the city.

It was especially heartening to see a unanimous approval for such a relatively large, bold artwork. Eight years ago there was push-back on the large painted mural sign we proposed for our 2nd Row development–which was at the time considered audacious for a downtown historic district (a muted dark gray in color, it was ultimately approved; progress photo from 2007 below). Thankfully, the Committee, and the public generally, now better appreciates the role that art, and its cousin good graphic design, can play in helping to revitalize and invigorate urban areas.

2nd Row Painting.jpg

A truly skilled urban artist at work

[thanks to Kyle Kruse for the Lichter’s mural image, and to the Birmingham News for the file photo of the 2nd Row mural]

Art and its absence

Validating our humanity on various levels

As we’ve discussed before, Birmingham has a poor record of supporting public art. While other cities large and small use public art as a routine component of urban revitalization, we have no comparable strategic program here (pictured above is “Chat” in downtown Brisbane, Australia by the sculptor Sebastian di Mauro; the whimsical knit bombing is by others). The absence of a good public art program is ironic given the local artistic talent that the City has, as well as  the ability of institutions like UAB and the Birmingham Museum of Art to attract all sorts of international talent to their stages and walls on a regular basis.

Long overdue

One of our readers alerted us last week to the public art project (above) at the base of the Brown Marx Building. For several years ugly, protective scaffolding has been erected around this large, historic vacant building at the corner of First Avenue North and 20th Street (several plans for mixed-use conversion over recent years have fallen through). Art students with local visual arts non-profit Space One Eleven were sponsored by the City and Operation New Birmingham to create art across the long expanses of plywood. It’s low on budget but high on creative energy.

Now that's attention to detail

Particularly satisfying was the portrait of Mayor Bell (detail, above), whose fingernail reflects an image of the downtown skyline. We love that.

Feast for the soul

For a major building to present such a forlorn aspect to such an important public intersection is disheartening. The art project goes some way to brightening this condition (and will soon by joined by a pilot project, also sponsored by the City and ONB, to install more art in vacant storefronts along 20th Street). Demonstrating the power of temporary public art is a good start towards implementing a permanent public art program in targeted areas of the City.

Looking better

That last image of the burger-for-the-soul brings us to a nice tangent–John’s City Diner (above), one of downtown’s oldest extant restaurants, and around the corner from the Brown Marx. The facade experienced an unfortunate renovation–guessing the early 1970’s–with tile and metal siding. Over the last weeks the owners have been partially renovating the frontage, revealing the beautiful art deco detailing still remaining at part of the top floor. Fingers crossed that the canopy and storefront can also be renovated. And that the iconic neon sign can remain lit for many more decades to come.

[thanks to trowzers for the Brisbane shot]

 

 

 

All together, now.

This past week the News confirmed an open secret: IMS, a company specializing in surgical instrument management and consulting, is relocating from suburban Homewood to downtown Birmingham. 100 employees will populate the former Noland building and warehouse (2nd Avenue North and 33rd Street), with additional space to be built on adjacent property. The “Sloss Business Park” would involve an (initial?) investment of $7.4 million.  ONB, the BBA, and the City are all mentioned as having helped make this possible. It is a too rare example of a corporate headquarters moving into the city. Here’s hoping others will follow.

Wellmark anchors a downtown district in Des Moines

In the meantime, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield is building a new headquarters in downtown Des Moines (thanks to jeremye2477 for the construction pic). It will house close to 2000 employees and represents a $250 million investment. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m excited as anyone about IMS (and hopeful that the architecture and planning of their new campus will be urban, forward-thinking, and inspirational). But, this comparison illustrates how far behind Birmingham is when compared to recruitment and retaining efforts in other cities, and the impact those efforts have in creating urban place.

As the New York Times pointed out in an article Feb. 17, Des Moines in recent years has thrived on cooperative efforts to improve and expand downtown. There are about 75,000 jobs downtown today, up 20,000 since the mid-1990’s. Birmingham has roughly 80,000 jobs downtown, but this number has been rising much more slowly in the same period. While we tend to have good plans for growth that sit gathering dust on shelves while factions squabble, there is a sense of common purpose in Des Moines–that a healthy downtown does not have to exist at the expense of a healthy metro. Instead, area leaders there see the health of the entire region depending on the health of downtown. They have cooperation. We, with some notable exceptions, do not.

Businesses want to invest in a downtown that’s embraced by the wider community. Instead of feeling like a pioneer, you feel like part of a plan for success. The plan in Des Moines includes a Regional Account, paid into by both city and suburbs, that helps provide stable funding to civic amenities like the art museum, symphony, botanical garden, etc. Here, these institutions often struggle year to year, depending on the whim or largesse of politicians and donors. The stability of Des Moines is part of what influences businesses like the Gateway Market to open downtown with confidence.

Gateway Market in downtown Des Moines

Main Street art in Chattaooga

Interestingly, Des Moines spends a set amount ($250,000) per year on public art. In Birmingham this would generally be frowned upon as frivolous. But just look a couple hours north to Chattanooga, where their public art fund has helped to revitalize the entire Main Street Area. In Birmingham, public art is the first aspect of a project to be chopped or deferred. In Chattanooga, it’s the opposite: art is used on the front end to attract attention and development. In this photo, you can see large, public art that was installed on an almost abandoned Main Street. 2 years later (when I snapped this pic), the neighborhood is thriving with shops, restaurants, and lofts. Oh, and a grocery just announced it’s arriving soon.

Western Gateway Park with sculpture

I love the idea of a human head/torso created with large, interconnected letters. Uplighting at night is beautiful.

One project in Birmingham that offers a contrast with Des Moines is the Railroad Park. In Des Moines, the new Western Gateway park was opened with unusual speed–2 1/2 years. Not only is it filled with large public sculpture, but it has already attracted new development such as the Des Moines Social Club, a multi-use art center with big ambitions. Thanks to Lukeh and regan76 for the full and detail pics of the Jaume Plensa sculpture in the park.

Back in Birmingham, the Railroad Park is indeed one of those rare examples of cooperation among many parties. In contrast to Western Gateway, it’s taken about 15 years since first conceived.

The public art component has been on again, off again, illustrating this community’s ambivalence to the real power of public art.  There have also been other cutbacks that some worry will dampen the final product.  But there remains a sense of optimism that, when this park opens later this year, it will become a catalyst for development. Let’s hope that our community doesn’t just sit back and nervously hope for the best, but instead focuses serious effort to making sure the park and its surrounding blocks are seen as a regional amenity that can help bring new corporate headquarters to Birmingham, inspire our own multi-use art spaces to crop up, and generate the interest of small business (and grocers) to the center city.

And maybe, just maybe,  even help reset our “cooperation” button. We need to unite to get things done. Hey, if they can do it in Des Moines…