Arts + Culture

Why Columbus is Losing Public Artists to Other Cities

Cover photo featuring mural by Jacob Tanner and Mandi Caskey. 

A few months ago, a thread on the Columbus subreddit caught my eye– Redditors were discussing the plans for the upcoming Short North Art on High project led by the consultancy Designing Local.

Someone joked (I think), “I hope they pick a Revolutionary or Civil War General sitting on his horse.” Another commenter was not as light hearted, stating “‘consultants’ and ‘public art’ should never appear in the same sentence.” The conversation underneath it developed into an interesting debate about the commodification of art. Some argued for more murals and artwork by local artists, while others contended that planners, consultants, and strict processes were necessary. All of this got me thinking about the public art scene here in Columbus.

I decided to go out and speak with some key voices about the state of public art in Columbus. I wanted to find out: how supportive the city government is of public arts, how local artists view the public art scene, what are the employment opportunities for local artists, and how the greater community is being engaged in the planning of public realm projects like Art on High. Here’s what I found.

Columbus’ public art ecosystem is very young.

Relative to other large cities, Columbus has been late to game on creating a supportive ecosystem enabling public arts and artists to thrive. According to David Gentilini, Director of the Schumacher Gallery and member of the Franklinton Arts District Board, the public art ecosystem has changed “drastically” in recent years, because previously there wasn’t an ecosystem at all. Gentilini expressed in a recent email exchange, “there is NOW a concentrated effort to bring art to the city. Before, the best we really had was Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes at the airport, some of the short north murals (like American Gothic), and the Topiary Garden. Anything else was private or corporate enterprise bringing it to fruition. Now there seems to be a real push by both the private and public sectors.”

Lori Baudro, the Public Art Project Coordinator for the City of Columbus, has aided the progress in recent years. Baudro articulated to me that funding for the arts is an issue of priorities in the local government. “We’ve had opportunities to implement public art programs like the percent for art program,” Baudro explains, “it just wasn’t a priority… When you pit [public art] against other city programs, like social service programming, it can be hard to get people to vote for it.”

The Short North Mural Series is very controversial.

Betsy Pandora, director of the Short North Alliance, explained the Short North Temporary Mural Series to me this way: “Created [by the Short North Alliance] in partnership with galleries in the Short North Arts District, these vinyl murals are applied to the sides of buildings and change annually. With the current sidewalks providing such little public space for permanent public artworks, the temporary series has served as a remarkable way for our community to celebrate artists in a big way without occupying big space.”

Going back to that Reddit thread, one commenter lamented “the way the Short North currently displays art on the sides of the walls is really canned. It’s devoid of expression and feels like someone just slapped a print on the wall. There’s even a description tag like a museum, which makes the whole thing feel inorganic.”

When I asked the Designing Local team about the vinyl murals, city planner Josh Lapp disagreed with that sentiment, explaining that the Short North Alliance is “driven by their property owners and they’re looking to expand the impact of the galleries in the neighborhood and draw more people into the businesses. So I think it’s a pretty innovative program actually.” His business partner Amanda Golden quickly chimed in, “I do too.”

Local public artists don’t find the series innovative, though. When speaking with Columbus-based muralist Mandi Caskey, I inquired about her and her friends’ thoughts on the matter, to which she responded with conviction, “the vinyls distract from what we’re trying to accomplish as a progressive and artistic city. They’re doing the opposite, pretty much posting up advertisements for galleries. And that’s what it is– selected artists from the galleries in the Short North.”

Local artists are leaving or are tempted to leave Columbus for cities with more opportunities.

Unfortunately, when it comes to public art– in particular murals– it seems as though Columbus is lacking paid opportunities and public acceptability. Consequently, artists are being pushed out or drawn elsewhere.

According to Mandi Caskey, the street art population has grown in the past few years thanks to a few key individuals who have set an aesthetic standard and helped teach the community that public art can, and should, look professional. However those same artists aren’t necessarily sticking around. Caskey’s friend and fellow artist Covert has been wheat pasting his art around the city for years. But in certain neighborhoods, like the Short North, it repeatedly gets taken down. And now, as Caskey explained to me, “he’s being paid to go to Sharon, Pennsylvania to put some of his art up. They’ve classified their city as an art desert, and they’re bringing in graffiti and street artists to add some life.” There’s an irony in that– that his free work isn’t acceptable in his own city, but he gets commissioned for paid work elsewhere. How are we supposed to keep our artists here if things like that keep happening?

Meanwhile, Caskey and her fiance, who is also a muralist, have been frequently traveling back and forth to Louisville, Kentucky where they’ve had better luck landing paid gigs and exciting collaborative opportunities. Caskey gushes about Louisville and how supportive the city is. She has gotten to work with their chapter of Habitat for Humanity and a number of private funders, and notes that there is a general understanding amongst business owners that “street art is good, and artists get paid for it.”   

“I want to put all of me into [Columbus], but if I’m not allowed, I’m going to put my efforts elsewhere,” Caskey says. “I just did a 200 foot long mural in Louisville. Columbus would never let me do that at this stage. Ever.”

And comments from Josh Lapp of Designing Local reinforced what Caskey told me: “when there’s not an ecosystem of paid art calls, then there’s just not going to be a group of people that are able to respond to those frequently. We have to support our own artists, and we have not, as a city, done a great job of supporting our public artists, because we haven’t really up to this point put a stake in the ground and said, ‘hey, we are really going to focus on doing large scale public art.’” Josh went on to explain that Lori Baudro at the City of Columbus has been “pushing something up the mountain” for years and it’s finally starting to pay off with projects like the Art on High plan. Baudro herself added that the public art ecosystem is “something that needs a chance to grow”.

So it looks like we’re going to have to figure out how to keep artists around while those opportunities are still growing, and part of that will involve figuring out how to embrace some non-sanctioned art too. Caskey puts it best when she says, “it’s supposed to be a freeing thing, it’s supposed to be street art, and it’s supposed to be for the public.”

There’s a disconnect between local artists and the city government artist calls.

Even when there are paid artist calls, the City has a hard time getting responses. “It’s a real struggle getting local artists to respond to our artist calls,” Baudro, the Public Art Project Coordinator for the City of Columbus, explained to me. “Every single public art call that we’ve done we’ve had to extend by 2 weeks to a month, and really beat the ground to try to get people to respond.”

Caskey says she hasn’t seen many official calls for murals or street art, and postulates that Baudro’s experience isn’t due to a lack of interest amongst local artists, but rather a failure to reach them with the calls. Caskey suggests doing more direct outreach to the underground street artists and muralists who are moving away, or even putting the calls out in local publications with young readership.

Historic buildings pose challenges for public art integration.

Historic buildings are a sore spot for public art. Neighborhood commissions and building owners are often not in favor of disrupting historic buildings’ materials with murals (this is part of the reasoning for the temporary vinyl murals in the Short North). And this is a countrywide phenomenon, in which public art and historical preservation clash. However, there are ways to work around these challenges that should be explored further in Columbus. One option is to create a mural or painting on a board that is then temporarily adhered to the wall. Another option, which Caskey has used in projects on historic buildings, is to use non-toxic paints and pigments made from less harsh ingredients. Caskey’s medium of choice: spray paint with a sugar cane base, which she says won’t deteriorate brick or other historic building materials. It’s important that we have these conversations and attempt to pave new ways forward that find a healthy balance of honoring the past and improving our cities for the future.

The Art on High Strategic Plan will be overwhelmingly guided by community stakeholders.

The City of Columbus’ most recent public art undertaking is the Art on High Strategic Plan, which is being led by Columbus-based placemaking and planning consultancy Designing Local. Designing Local is collaborating with three other entities on this plan: Marc Pally (art curator), MKSK (lead streetscape designers), and Kolar Design (experience designers). With an anticipated November reveal of the Strategic Plan, Designing Local has been busy engaging with the community since August.

Josh Lapp, principal planner and co-founder at Designing Local, noted that “ we already know there’s a lot of controversial things happening in the neighborhood. High Street is changing rapidly, there’s already a lot of construction underway. And this project is really about tapping into the existing spirit of the neighborhood. And so we want to try to do everything we can to engage in a positive manner with people, to help us make these art pieces a continuum of where the neighborhood was and where it’s going into the future.”

So far, Designing Local has organized and hosted: an intro meeting for the public to meet the Art on High team, the GoLive event which filled the Short North with live musicians and opportunities to provide feedback on what art community members like and hope to see in the future, and three “Charrettes in Motion,” which were group walks along High Street with the chance for community members to share their thoughts and ask questions about the Strategic Plan. (There is actually one Charrette in Motion remaining, this Sunday October 8th at 10am. Go!) Lastly, Designing Local has set up an ongoing online survey where you can share your feedback at any time.

Proponents of a truly community-driven design process, Designing Local has not been asking people to respond to preconceived ideas or plans. “We’re engaging and then creating a plan based on the community’s suggestions,” explained Amanda Golden, Managing Principal of Designing Local.

There’s a lot of hope for the future of public art in Columbus.

I think we can all agree on one thing: we hope the future holds more funding and more opportunities for public art by local artists. Designing Local’s team and Lori Baudro are hopeful that when they ultimately put out RFPs for Art on High artwork, the local artists come running. Meanwhile, Mandi Caskey wants the contemporary mural scene to be given space to flourish here, ideally with our own version of an Art Basel festival. In her words, “why wouldn’t you want something so spectacular and forever changing and growing?”

What does Caskey want the most though? “I want quality [art] and I want opportunities for local artists so that they don’t have to leave to get paid to do what they love.”

 

 

Staff writer and community manager for 1812 Columbus. Creative community developer for SEEN Digital Media and Snapfluence. Loves doughnuts, kittens, barbells, and oxford commas.