The art that a community chooses for its public places–the people, events, ideas, and aesthetics that are memorialized, celebrated, and commemorated–expresses the character of the locale. Local officials may depict historical events or founders, patrons may honor the obscure, or the civic-minded may beautify a run-down area. In each situation, they hire an artist to create an appropriate interpretation that makes a space unique. Awareness of a city’s art will enrich the experience of visiting the place. It teaches history, asserts values, and reveals imagination. Here is a collection of public art from my travels that linger meaningfully in my memory.
1. Flamingo by Alexander Calder . . . for Chicago Travelers
Federal Building, Chicago, IL – Because of his well-established international reputation, Calder was commissioned by the federal government in 1973 to create a special sculpture for the plaza in front of three federal buildings in Chicago’s Loop. The sculpture’s brilliant vermilion color, “Calder red,” contrasts with the dark grays and blacks of the surrounding buildings, and its graceful arch and dramatic asymmetry humanize the space that is otherwise dominated by the angular, blocky monolith of the office buildings. Take a break, relax, and enjoy watching children playing and busy adults weaving among the “legs” of this gigantic, playful work of art.
Intel: Calder is famous for his “mobiles” in which he produced movement by suspending red, blue, and yellow shapes from thin black wires. Interestingly, “Flamingo” has the same sense of movement even though it’s firmly anchored to the plaza. To learn more, head over to the Art Institute of Chicago gift shop and pick up a book on American Modernism.
2. The Heidelberg Project by Tyree Guyton . . . for Detroit Travelers
Photo courtesy of nic_r
McDougall-Hunt Neighborhood, Detroit, MI – For more than 25 years, the collection of artwork in this two-block area of Detroit has challenged visitors to think, question, and act. Formed from salvaged objects, glowing with bright colors and jammed with rich symbolism, the art, according to Guyton, should “inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community.” Each of the works elucidates a current social issue, and the entire experience forces the visitor to consider not only the meaning and purpose of art, but also the human condition, at both an individual and corporate level.
Intel: The floundering Detroit economy has produced large quantities of cheap real estate and empty buildings. Artists have taken advantage of this situation to create a renewed and prospering arts community. Check out the metrotimes weekly for a full calendar of local arts events. http://calendar.metrotimes.com/.
3. The Front Door Project . . . for Indiana Travelers
Photo courtesy of Columbus CVB
I-65 & State Rd 46, Columbus, IN – Even the most unobservant driver approaching State Road 46 on I-65 between Louisville and Indianapolis would notice the absence of the ordinary concrete interstate highway bridge and the unexpected presence instead of the incongruous, red, twin-ribbed spans of this bridge. Fittingly, this work of art marks the gateway entrance to the small, but extraordinary town of Columbus, IN. The place is a venerable museum of modern architecture, ranked No. 6 in the nation for innovation and design by the American Institute of Architects, just behind Chicago, New York, and Boston.
Intel: To enjoy the experience the bridge merely announces, grab a brochure at the visitor’s center and take a self-guided tour. Works by Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Dale Chihuly, Henry Moore, and a mind-blowing number of other internationally renowned modern artists and architects will delight your senses and prompt obvious wonder how this gem came to lie in the Hoosier farmland.
4. Holocaust Memorial . . . for Miami Travelers
Photo courtesy of Enesse Bhe
Meridian Ave, Miami Beach, FL - Free and open to the public, this memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust consists of a series of paths that compel the visitor into contemplation and meditation. Vignettes and sculptures along the way signify the struggle and life of the Jewish families of Nazi Germany. In the central feature, “The Sculpture of Love and Anguish,” the artist portrays the Holocaust frozen in time. A giant outstretched arm of patinated bronze bears a number from Auschwitz and reaches (hopefully? hopelessly?) into the sky. Pained and despairing human bodies cover the arm.
Intel: It’s a short three-and-a-half-block walk south to Lincoln Road, where numerous cafes and coffee shops provide places to relax before or after a visit to the Memorial.
5. Retired Lenin Statue by Karlis Jansons . . . for Cesis Latvia Travelers
Castle Park, Cesis, Latvia - Dedicated in November 1959, this typical Soviet-era statue of Lenin was created by one of Latvia’s leading memorial sculptors. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe and Latvia’s subsequent independence upon dissolution of the Soviet Union prompted the removal of the statue in October 1990 from its former location. Officials then placed it in a far-off corner of the park with an odd single sign that directs visitors toward a dark coffin-like box. Inside lies the once-heroic sculpture. From the point of view of almost every Latvian, Lenin, and all that the statue represents, has appropriately found his final resting place.
Intel: Be sure to visit the small building at the foot of the castle ruins. Inside await a demonstration of the process of ancient jewelry forging and an exhibit, “Ornament of Ancient Secret.”
6. Diego Rivera’s Murals . . . for Mexico City Travelers
Photo courtesy of Darij and Ana
National Palace Mexico City, Mexico – Seat of the federal executive, the National Palace houses Federal offices, the National Archives, one of the largest libraries in Mexico, and, most impressive, a 450 sq. ft. mural by Diego Rivera, “Historia y Perspectiva de Mexico” (“History and Perspective of Mexico”). Painted between 1926 and 1945, the colorful, rich, and dramatic panorama depicts the history of Mexico from its mythical roots in the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl through the workers’ movement of the 1930’s. In contrast to the glorification of the Aztec period, Rivera painted the full ugliness of the Spanish conquest, including rape, pillage, and torture. His rendering of connections between the Mexican Revolution, the issue of workers’ rights, and creation of a Marxist utopia bespeaks the artist’s known political beliefs.
Intel: A close look reveals portraits of many famous people such as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Frida Kahlo, and Karl Marx, although not all are portrayed in a flattering way!
7. Mission District Murals by Various Artists . . . for San Francisco Travelers
Photo courtesy of idleformate
Balmy Alley, San Francisco, CA - Starting in the mid-1980’s, various artists created a series of vividly colored murals about human rights concerns, political and social issues, and the simply fantastical. Many focus on matters of particular importance to immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Today the work has grown to include several styles and artistic points of view. The best concentration of murals is in the one-block part of Balmy Alley between 24th and 25th streets. Best viewed on foot, this ever-changing collection of art offers an absorbing glimpse into the lives of San Francisco residents.
Intel: Murals abound in the Mission District–more than 600 in fact! Another great area to explore is Clarion Alley where the murals are not based on a single theme, but rather offer greater aesthetic variety and more ethnic diversity.
8. The Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica . . . for New York City Travelers
Wall Street, New York, NY – Just as New York City’s Wall Street epitomizes the capitalistic spirit of a nation, so the Charging Bull, an oversized bronze representation of the symbol of stock market optimism and prosperity, captures the spirit of Wall Street. A gift by artist Arturo Di Modica, the bull remains the artist’s property, but it has been on “temporary” display for “one year” in downtown New York since the sculptor installed it in 1989. The bull’s status as a true icon and much-photographed tourist attraction suggests that it will remain indefinitely.
Intel: Own this piece! In 2004, Di Modica announced it was for sale with the stipulation that it won’t be moved from its present location.
9. Statues on the Charles Bridge . . . for Prague Travelers
Photo courtesy of scatterbrained
Vltava River, Prague, Czech Republic – Construction of the beautiful and romantic Charles Bridge, perhaps the most visited site in Prague, began in 1357. In contrast to the Gothic bridge with its 16 arches and three Gothic bridge towers, 30 statues of saints, most in the Baroque style, are situated on the balustrade of the bridge, 15 on either side.
Intel: The views of a fairytale castle on a hill on one side of the river and the Old Town on the opposite side, combined with the lamps that line the bridge, make this the perfect place for an evening stroll.
10. Lincoln Memorial by Architect Henry Bacon, Sculpture by Daniel French, and Murals by Jules Guerin . . . for Washington DC Travelers
The Mall, Washington, DC - This classic Greek temple, a fine example of Greek Revival architecture, honors the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Made of Colorado Yule marble and surrounded by 36 fluted Doric columns, the memorial glimmers on the horizon. Engraved on the inside walls are quotes from the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural address. An enormous statue of Lincoln seated in a chair exuding authority, dignity, and compassion, dominates the interior space, a fitting honor to arguably our greatest president. Lincoln’s hands are sculpted to depict the sign language version of his initials, “A” and “L.”
Intel: Visit the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Jefferson Memorial after dinner. It’s a win-win, especially in summer: The lighting is gorgeous and the summertime heat abates.