The city’s biggest public art project — both in terms of size and price tag — was the sprawling “This Equals That” by renowned artist Michael Heizer. The $540,000 project, once referred to as “Lansing’s Stonehenge,” was the largest sculpture in the United States when it was completed in 1980. In 2001, it was moved to repair the ceiling of the garage below it and was damaged in the process. It was left to rot for years in a state-owned field in Mason. Billionaire Detroit art patron Richard Manoogian rescued the piece, which sits in one of his warehouses — to far gone to be displayed again without major repair, a spokesman for Heizer said.
Lansing’s next big public art project came in 2011, with the installation of “Inspiration,” a steel ribbon sculpture near the Lansing City Market. A coalition led by former Ingham County judge Michael Harrison raised $300,000 for the project, which marks Lansing’s sesquicentennial. The group originally hoped to put a public art piece at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Washington Square, but pushback from the city relegated the piece to its riverside home.
And while the city has wrestled with its stance on public art, groups throughout Lansing have taken matters into their own hands.
In recent years, small public art works have popped up all over the city and surrounding communities. New murals decorate formerly blank walls, and sculptures have appeared at prominent intersections. Colorful pianos sit outside downtown bars.
The Arts Council of Greater Lansing even created a smartphone app, 517 ARTsearch, to help Greater Lansing residents discover the hundreds of public art works in the region. The app — available on Apple and Android platforms at 517artsearch.com — uses GPS navigation to guide users to public art locations.
So where is all of this art coming from? The culprits — and their motives — are almost as diverse as the art works themselves.
“I was afraid no one would show up,” said Mitch Tomlinson, looking out at a crowd of over 100 people packed into a small tent for the unveiling of “Project RestART.”
The new public art installation, located in a neglected parking lot near the intersection of Saginaw Highway and Rosemary Street, is a collaborative project between Peckham’s youth services program and MSU’s College of Engineering and Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. Tomlinson, president and CEO of Peckham Inc., called the project a “three-year journey.”
The installation, stretching over 200 feet, comprises a series of 12 mosaicked concrete barricades. Each barricade has a different theme. Some have messages of hope or inspiration, while others have images inspired by Lansing or MSU. Each barricade also features a pole at each end, and butterfly paintings created by Riddle Elementary students are strung between the poles above the barricades.
“This was the kids’ idea,” Tomlinson said. “They wanted something that spoke about the newness of Lansing, about what Lansing could be. It’s a hopeful thing.”
The “kids” Tomlinson refers to are the youth involved in Peckham’s Next Step program, a free second chance program that works with juvenile offenders. Tomlinson said the youth would leave the program inspired but then would get depressed on the way home as they passed empty factories and abandoned industrial sites. The “Project Re-stART” site, a forlorn parking lot no longer adjacent to any extant businesses, seemed like a good place to start.
Vincent Delgado, assistant dean for civic engagement at MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, found the installation site entirely appropriate.
“This is a traumatic site,” said Delgado, looking out at vast swaths of empty land that once supported Lansing’s automotive industry. “It represents the end of a dream for thousands of people.”
While Peckham and MSU provided guidance and logistical support, the project, from inception to final product, was driven by the youth. Over the three years, over 100 youth participated in the project.
“The most important thing is that is was an inside-out project,” said Delgado. “The people who made the important decisions were the young people. What we really wanted to do is help these youth be leaders in their communities.”
The art itself is rife with metaphors, explained several speakers at the unveiling. The transformed roadblocks represent overcoming life’s obstacles. The broken glass used to make the mosaics represents taking broken things and giving them new life. The butterflies are symbols of metamorphosis.
“Through the years of this partnership, the vision and art mediums morphed from mural paintings to graffiti art to what we have today,” said Sarah Britton, youth programs coordinator at Peckham. “The project displays symbols and messages of hope and resilience and reminds us that no matter what adversities or roadblocks cross our path, we choose to use those moments as learning opportunities and to make something beautiful out of the process.”
The students in REACH Studio Art Center’s Teen Open Studio class recently learned firsthand about one of public art’s biggest obstacles: the public.
The class partners with local nonprofits to create three public art projects per year. Its most recent project is a series of four sidewalk murals around city storm drains. The goal of the project is to help Lansing residents understand that garbage and pollutants washed down storm drains can end up in Lansing’s rivers and waterways. A few of the murals, which illustrated the ugliness of trash and pollution, raised the ire of passers-by.
“It made a point. It stood out,” said Ripley Olsen. “We didn’t want to sugarcoat it.”
Ripley, 15, is one of the teens who helped to create the murals. Initially, she was disappointed in the reaction to the murals.
“We learned that there will be people who dislike your art, even though you worked so hard on it,” she said.
Through the ordeal, the students learned about compromise and education. One mural, situated on the River Trail near the City Market, was redesigned to address public concerns. In another instance, locals were concerned about the look of an unfinished mural.
“It looked so ugly before it was finished,” said Colby Castillo, 14. “Explaining the piece helped them understand what was going on.”
Colby said that educational murals are a great way to get across a complicated message in a simple way.
“People are very impressionable,” he said. “Art can really affect how they think about things.”
Joy Baldwin, program director for REACH, uses these nonprofit partnerships to teach teens about issues that face their communities. For the storm drain project, she brought in officials from the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, the Eaton Conservation District, the Watershed Coordinator, the Greater Lansing Regional Committee and the City of Lansing to talk to the students.
“I let the professionals handle the education,” Baldwin said.
She went on to explain that education provides students with the motivation to go out into the community and create the works.
“The teens realize the importance of the issues,” she said. “They work hard because they care.”
Since 2012, the Teen Open Studio has executed 15 public art projects resulting in 33 works of art spread across 12 locations. Other recent partnerships include a “bottle rocket” sculpture at Impression 5 Science Center and a pair of murals at the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing. Baldwin said that the Women’s Center murals, especially the colorful mural on its west wall, have already made a difference in the community’s awareness of the agency.
“Before, the building was kind of invisible,” she said. “Now so many people walk in just to see what’s going on there.”
Alissa Ledesma, 16, worked on the murals at the Women’s Center. Through the project, she also learned about the services the center offers.
“It’s awesome that there’s somewhere like that,” she said. “I didn’t know there was a group like that supporting women.”
In recent years, the funding for several Greater Lansing art projects has come from a source with a decidedly un-artistic name: the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. A public/ private partnership dedicated to fostering economic growth, LEAP may seem like an unlikely ally of the push for public art. But Bob Trezise, president and CEO of LEAP, thinks art is an important part of presenting Greater Lansing as a 21st century city.
“Our bottom-line goal is to make sure everyone under stands we’re a global community competing in a global economy,” Trezise said. “We need to have a sophisticated, cosmopolitan image.”
Trezise said that many local business are recruiting recent graduates, who are often leaving culture-rich college towns. Other businesses are trying to lure top talent away from cosmopolitan cities like London or Stockholm.
“We have to help businesses recruit and retain global talent,” Trezise said, citing MSU’s FRIB facility, Jackson National Life and Techsmith as local organizations seeking employees on an international level.
“They’re recruiting global candidates — and their families. They want to see an environment that is like the one they’re leaving.”
Since 2012, LEAP has invested $110,000 in 11 public art projects in Greater Lansing. This year, it unveiled the new “Greetings from Lansing” mural near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cedar Street, as well as sculptures in Grand Ledge and St. Johns. The funding comes from LEAP investors; no tax dollars are used.
“We haven’t heard of another economic agency doing this,” said Sara Parkinson, LEAP’s director of talent and communication. “Our members love the program.”
Parkinson oversees LEAP’s placemaking efforts, which include the public art grants. The grants are relatively small for public art projects, just $10,000 per project. Some communities have turned to other grants or crowdsourcing campaigns to augment the LEAP funding. St. Johns used its LEAP grant to create a sculpture, unveiled last week, to accompany its crowdfunded community splash park. The city broke ground on the splash park the same day as the sculpture unveiling.
“The art grants are a carrot,” explained Trezise. “We’re trying to introduce the importance of the arts into communities.”
“They’re figuring out where to get their funding,” added Parkinson. “We get them to think about it. Eight or nine communities have adopted public art policies or started local arts councils because of the program.”
The City of East Lansing, which was awarded a LEAP grant in 2014 to help fund the installation of six creative bike racks, recently instituted a Percent for Art ordinance to codify and fund the purchase and maintenance of the city’s public art. The ordinance sets aside 1 percent of the budget for any city capital improvement projects for a public art fund. Any new private developments must include a public art component to its design, with the cost being at least 1 percent of the total project cost up to $25,000. Alternatively, developers may omit the public art component by donating 1 percent of the total project cost, up to $25,000, to the public art fund. The East Lansing Arts Commission oversees the fund. Ami Van Antwerp, communications coordinator for the city, said that the ordinance raised $11,500 for public art in its first year. She expects that figure to be higher next year as developers wrap up significant East Lansing projects.
The City of Lansing considered a similar proposal last year, but it was defeated in City Council. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero opposed the measure.
Other public art projects are just for fun. This spring, local artist and Capital Area Blues Society board member Larry Grudt placed nine artist-decorated pianos throughout Lansing and East Lansing. Last month, local artist Julian Van Dyke wrapped up two outdoor mural projects before the weather turns cold.
“(The idea to make the murals) came from what the Arts Council (of Greater Lansing) was talking about, beautifying the city,” he said. “I try to do work to get people’s attention.”
Van Dyke’s newest murals, both on Michigan Avenue, adorn the sides of two local businesses. The first, a triptych on the side of Hotwater Works, was a collaboration with James McFarland, the business’ owner and a fellow painter. That project led to the second opportunity.
“The owner of Jerusalem Bakery saw the mural at Hotwater Works and asked me to make one for him,” said Van Dyke.
The Jerusalem Bakery mural depicts the skyline of the bakery’s namesake city, including its distinctive city walls and the prominent golden peak of the Dome of the Rock. Van Dyke loves that thousands of people traveling the busy Michigan Avenue corridor will be able to see his work.
“Artists want their work to be seen,” he said. “I get the best deal because there’s so much traffic on Michigan Avenue.”
Van Dyke believes that mural projects and public art can make a neighborhood feel safer and more inviting. While he was working, many people stopped to take pictures or compliment the murals. Even Bernero stopped by to snap some photos. Van Dyke said he’s glad to see so much public support, and he is excited about all of the public art projects popping up in Greater Lansing.
“There’s not enough art to go around,” he said. “We need more of it.”