Public Art in Boston? Nothing to See Here

Enough already with Boston's boring, old, and stodgy public art.

boston's public art

Illustration by C.J. Burton

At the beginning of August, the Institute of Contemporary Art unveiled an enormous mural on the side of a building in Dewey Square, the one-time home of Occupy Boston. Painted by the Brazilian graffiti artists, and twin brothers, known as Os Gêmeos, it’s a bright and colorful 70-foot depiction of a young boy with his head covered by a shirt. All you can see are his eyes. The piece echoes similar work the brothers have done around the world depicting yellow, Simpsons-like characters. Os Gêmeos titled this one The Giant of Boston.

The mural has been remarkably well received. WGBH visual-art contributor Mary Tinti commented that the piece “brings a sense of culture and vibrancy to this area of downtown Boston whose architecture can seem so corporate, so dark, so cold.” Globe art critic Sebastian Smee noted that “it stirs the heart and—in its play with color and scale—it’s wonderfully witty.” And while a handful of modern-day philosophers took the opportunity to lob ethnic slurs about the kid looking like a “terrorist” on Fox Boston’s Facebook page, ICA director Jill Medvedow was unfazed. She released a straightforward statement: “Good art gets people talking.”

The kind reception has been a coup for the ICA, which is also presenting an Os Gêmeos exhibition at the museum through November. (To go along with the show, the artists have painted two other murals in Boston, one each at the Revere Hotel and Mama Gina’s restaurant in Somerville.) The success is proof that Boston is desperate for more and better public art—something we’ve been sorely lacking.

Boston’s public art was pretty great in the first half of the 1900s. Back then, the Boston Art Commission (BAC) was putting up bronze sculptures around the city, including the Commodore John Barry Memorial and the Paul Revere statue in the North End. Founded in 1890, the BAC is responsible for more than 80 bronze artworks—most of them celebrating our role in the American Revolution. Those pieces clearly have tremendous historical and cultural significance, but you can only take so many pictures of yet another statue of a white guy holding a musket or sitting on a horse before you move on. In fact, with the exception of Paul Revere, I bet that most locals couldn’t identify any of these works—or, for that matter, a single piece of public art in Boston.

So what has the Boston Art Commission been up to lately? Not much. In 2010 they commissioned such things as three bike racks in Mission Hill and a curving wire-mesh fence around a Jamaica Plain tennis court. That same year, they also unveiled a bronze statue outside Fenway of Ted Williams, then four more Fenway statues of “The Teammates” (Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams, again). Yes, more bronze statues!

I tried to find out what’s going on with the BAC and Boston’s public art in general, but no one wanted to talk. I called a dozen prominent figures in Boston’s art community. Half didn’t bother to call me back, while the other half said they were not interested at all in commenting on the matter, for fear of pissing in the Frog Pond (or, perhaps, missing and hitting the bronze Make Way for Ducklings statues). “Traditional, representational art does well in Boston,” one prominent arts insider told me, after I promised anonymity. “Anything else is a bit of a hard sell, especially in the public realm.” But that’s the idea: Public art is supposed to engage, delight, provoke, and push us to think in new ways.

Finally, I tracked down Nick Capasso, the deputy director for curatorial affairs at the DeCordova Sculptural Park and Museum in Lincoln. Capasso has put together more than 75 exhibitions over the past 20 years, including works by award-winning sculptors Chakaia Booker and Steven Siegel. In Boston, he told me, “There’s not really a structure in place to support major works by major artists.” Instead, he said, “You’re getting a variety of small projects around the city of varying quality.”

So, that’s the tiny town of Lincoln giving us advice. Other cities are so far beyond us, it’s unbelievable. In New York, for example, the Creative Time organization has been working to “infiltrate the public realm” with outdoor installations since 1973. In early years, the group held the successful “Art on the Beach” show, which featured temporary sculptures, nearly every summer in Battery Park City. In 2011 it brought together a group of artists to create a series of site-specific performance pieces based on Twitter conversations and interactions. And since 2002 Creative Time has annually installed its wildly popular “Tribute in Light,” a twin-light-beam memorial to the city’s fallen World Trade Center.

But it’s not just New York that’s breaking ground. Denver has spent the past few decades garnering national and international attention for its diverse roster of public-art installations. Artist Lawrence Argent’s beloved Big Blue Bear (formally known as I See What You Mean) has been peeking into the Colorado Convention Center since 2005, while the 32-foot Mustang installation brought a much-debated fiery-eyed, rearing blue horse to the Denver International Airport. Farther west, the city of Seattle is sponsoring a series of temporary artworks to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair. A living map of Seattle’s hydro-electric generation and energy use by Adam Frank was installed as part of these exhibits, along with Mandy Greer’s thoroughly expansive 250-foot web of fiber that celebrated the joy of Seattle’s urban creeks. Either might fit in nicely over at our Museum of Science, but there’s no will to make it happen. “We’re coming to a crossroads for public art in Boston,” Capasso says. “Contemporary public art in Boston compared to other cities is moribund.”

Do you know what we need? A Marshall Plan for public art here. A national, or, better yet, an international jury of art experts should bring together a wide range of artists to create contemporary pieces across the city. We also need to finally declare an end to the Bronze Age.

I’m not saying we should completely leave it behind. Let’s just reframe the conversation: Our supposed “burden of history” is actually an opportunity for dialogue with the past, a chance to think creatively about how to drag some of these older (and, of course, distinguished and important) works and public spaces into the 21st century. Why not have a mediated and thoughtful response to the power and message of Saint-Gaudens’s bronze of Shaw’s 54th Regiment from an artist interested in human rights or the horrors of war? How about an installation, in response to the words on the Boston Common Tablet, that offers a meditation on the use of this public space in our own time? Two small examples, but it’s easy to see how, if promoted properly, the prominence of our city would bring entries from all over the world.

Funding, of course, is an age-old problem, particularly with tight city coffers and a slumping private-sector economy. So let’s rely on modern innovation and crowd-source the idea. Why not ask people from around the world to pitch in a few dollars via Kickstarter? It’s a dynamic and rather 21st-century solution to getting around the usual channels of large corporations or a few Brahmins throwing out millions of dollars. It also offers a sense of communal ownership that might be a neat exercise in real community-building. Which, it’s clear, we certainly need.