Public (Art) Inquiry

Local organizations to put impressive public art on view this summer

As the mercury begins its steady ascent and the humid days give way to sultry nights, the climate-controlled environs of Cincinnati’s art galleries beckon. But with the spring season nearing its end and several galleries paring back their programming, despite best efforts to beat the heat, this summer’s hottest works are going to be found outside. 

Cincinnati has always had a strong, albeit low-key, tradition of great public art. Works by notables such as Louise Nevelson, Jim Dine and Patricia Renick discretely dot the urban landscape, and who could forget Nam June Paik’s oversized “Metrobot” whose golden exterior and digital display once adorned the façade of the Contemporary Arts Center’s previous location. 

But the city’s most visible manifestations of public art aren’t the rarified products of art world darlings — they are delivered courtesy of the hard work and determination of several local organizations that, for the past several years, have been radically changing the way we see the city around us.

ArtWorks (whose MuralWorks program has been altering blank surfaces since 2007), Higher Level Art — Matthew Dayler and Danny Babcock’s collaborative partnership — and the Taft Museum all have big plans for summer 2012.  

Just last week, the Taft Museum officially went public with its ambitious Art for All program. Modeled after a similar program organized by the Detroit Institute of Art, Art for All commemorates 80 years since Charles and Anna Taft donated their home and art collection to the people of Cincinnati by placing reproductions from the museum directly out into the public sphere.

“It’s our way of giving back to the community that has supported us by sharing our art in people’s own neighborhoods,” explains the Taft’s Assistant Curator Tamera Muente. 

In the making since September of last year, the project has been a prodigious effort. “With only a small staff, we had to identify 80 prospective locations, which involved mapping the Taft’s membership base by zip code and identifying potential partners,” Muente says.  

“From the very beginning,” says Tricia Suit, Taft’s communications manager, “we knew we couldn’t find all of the locations on our own and wanted to reach out to community art centers. It’s been great working with them, sharing information and expanding audiences for all of us involved.” 

The paintings, which range from the iconic to the inconspicuous, were captured by photographer Tony Walsh and sent to Photo Lab, Inc. and ABC Signs for fabrication, mounting and finishing. The results are nothing less than stunning. The life-size reproductions of works by giants such as Rembrandt, Whistler and Turner punctuate Greater Cincinnati enclosed in glistening gold frames and feature didactic panels designed by students from Northern Kentucky University.

Art for All is painting-centric, but Suit points out, “We talked about reproducing 3D works early on, and I would have loved to have a couple Chinese porcelain balusters out in the world! But it would have been cost-prohibitive.”

The program runs through Oct. 1, but a fruitful collaboration with ArtWorks — which began last year with a cunning interpretation of Frank Duveneck’s “The Cobbler’s Apprentice” located at The Banks — is set to create murals near Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine and Bellevue as lasting reminders of Art for All. 

“We’ll paint two murals inspired by their permanent collection but with a twist,” says Colleen Houston, director of programs for ArtWorks. “Local artists will build upon the masterpieces and make them truly unique.” 

In addition to their partnership with the Taft, ArtWorks — whose bevy of programs oriented around active community engagement have had a profound impact on our region — will be adding 10 new murals and four new neighborhoods to its ever-expanding portfolio.  

“The great thing about MuralWorks is that any individual or organization or business within the City of Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky can request a mural,” Houston says. “Partners working with ArtWorks are involved from start to finish.”

Houston is particularly excited about several projects taking shape this summer. Among them, “The Wall of Education,” a mural at the corner of Burnett and William Howard Taft in Corryville, is getting a complete makeover. The once vibrant work, which features images of young people involved in art, music, science and more, was painted 35 years ago by artists Gilbert and Joyce Young, but has seen better days. 

“The Youngs created a great legacy and even the model for what our mural program has become,” Houston says. “We hope to honor their legacy and are excited to work with their guidance to paint a new mural in that location thanks to a great partnership with CPS and ProKids.”

In addition to the Corryville project, Houston points to the wall in front of the Kroger building facing Central Parkway downtown, saying, “This has been a dream for years. This wall has prime visibility and will be one of our best canvases yet.”

But MuralWorks isn’t the only game in town. Since 2008, pieces by Higher Level Art, founded by collaborators Dayler and Babcock, have been popping up around the city. 

“We tackle every project with a lot of intensity.” Dayler says. “If we’re transforming an outdoor space or an indoor space, we consider everything that goes into it; we want our projects to have great visual impact as well as make you think.”

“And this summer, we are busy, busy, busy,” Dayler continues, noting that at the time of our interview the they were just beginning their annual Fringe Festival Mural to be featured outside Know Theatre on Twelfth Street during the fest. He adds: “We did a wall for the World Choir Games over by the Purple People Bridge and we just recently completed a really great project in Columbia-Tusculum, right by the Starbucks.” Dayler is quick to add, “That one’s definitely a can’t-miss.” 

Considering the breadth and scope of the public projects happening this summer, it would be difficult, and a shame, to miss any of them.

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