Foreclosures have taken their toll on cities, not only in reduced property tax revenue, but by leaving the landscape looking bleak and abandoned. Empty storefronts discourage foot traffic which results in decreased pedestrian shopping in businesses that remain open. Empty businesses become targets for vandalism and graffiti which trash the neighborhood further making it even less appealing for shopping or dining. But certain cities are enlisting the talents of artists to bring culture and aesthetic awareness to neighborhoods that are less than desirable.
Thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, some blighted California neighborhoods are enjoying an artistic “Renaissance” of murals, sculptures, and installations. In San Francisco officials are resurrecting a project that is filling empty and under used retail locations in the Central Market district, in an “inside out” exhibit bringing art to the general public.
Painter Rafael Landea, a project artist who created a mural depicting empty theatre seats, says “People are alot more interested in art than we believe. But some people don’t feel that they can go into a museum or or an art gallery.” Now, thanks to this project, people don’t have to enter a gallery to view fine art, they only need to walk through a neighborhood.
Artists who are invited to participate in the San Francisco program receive a $1500.00 stipend. The works are funded by a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and there are eleven site specific art installations. Luis Cancel, director of cultural affairs at the San Francisco Arts Commission suggests that the artwork needs to serve two purposes; it must make the street an inviting place to linger but it must also fit into the neighborhood. It is important for people to see themselves and their neighborhood reflected in the artwork. Criteria fo choosing the artwork includes consideration for safety and vandalism. Artists are discouraged from using technology which can result in theft, and from designing artwork that invites graffiti or “tagging”. When city officials first tried using art as an economic stimulus in 2009 they had a hard time persuading property owners in the selected neighborhoods to participate. But the program succeeded in decreasing graffiti on the selected buildings and increasing foot traffic to other buildings and throughout the general neighborhood. Property owners were eager to participate in the event this year.
In San Jose, California a similar project called “Downtown Doors” encourages high school artists to submit artwork for use on selected business doors throughout downtown San Jose. High schools throughout the city are encouraged to participate by submitting student work. The final selections are fabricated onto doors from participating vendors and businesses and remain in place for one year. Students are awarded monetary prizes and recognized at a civil ceremony. Using the student artwork discourages random vandalism and promotes student talent in an appropriate and highly visible venue. It also attracts foot traffic into areas of downtown San Jose that are normally desolate.
“Green art” or recycled art is encouraged in neighborhood projects and is a way to get people to look at the ordinary in an extrordinary way. In San Francisco, sculptor Alexis Arnold was inspired by what she calls “theft overs”- bicycle carcasses left on the street after thieves have stolen all the non-secured parts. For her sculpture she she covered used bicycle wheels with crystals and installed them in the window of a former restaurant. “The idea is ‘to take objects we usually discard or never think have a purpose in society and highlight the aesthetic form.’ she said” . Using neighborhood discards is a unique way that artists reflect the community in their artwork.
Art touches the human soul and people love looking at it. But not everyone has the time or resources to enjoy visiting a gallery. Creating art in neglected neighborhood spaces makes the luxury of culture available to all. It also makes the space rich and inviting allowing for the possibility of commerce, trade and social ambiance. It creates, in effect, a piazza- a place to linger and dream; converse and create. Perhaps some good will emerge from the collapse of the real estate market by the use of art to re-invent our city spaces and create neighborhood “piazzas” which will be enjoyed and appreciated for many years.