March 5 2014 12:00 AM

Lansing City Council considering new board to oversee public art policy


This story was corrected on March 7 to say that public art legislation will be introduced to the City Council's General Services Committee.

Last November, a 17-foot-tall stainless steel art sculpture was unveiled on a plot of unused green space in DeWitt Township’s commercial district. The installation site on the northwest corner of the busy Sheridan Street/ Old US 27 intersection could have been prime real estate for a new business, but municipal leaders put their hope in the idea that the sculpture, ambitiously named “A Great Place to Start” by local recycling artist Tom Sheerin (who grew up a block away), would do more to grow the local economy than a caf or bike shop would.

“This art piece … is at the center of the plans … to create a unique character and revitalization (for the area),” reads the township’s Facebook page dedicated to the event. “In addition to creating a sense of place, the Township’s goals … include spurring economic development on this business corridor and enhancing the quality of life in the neighborhood … .”

This art-forward thinking seems to contradict conventional logic that retail traffic drives a local economy. But Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, boldly suggests that public art pieces like this are key nutrients for fertile business soil.

“Arts and culture are critical to economic development,” Trezise said. “A (public art plan) should be part of any municipality’s strategic plan for retaining and attracting talent to a region. Arts and culture represent opportunity and wealth. Along with maintenance of parks, recreation programs and education, they all add up to job creation. The better they are, the better the jobs will be.”

LEAP is a public/private coalition made up of dues-pay ing businesses and municipalities designed to make the region covering Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties an appealing place to build and grow businesses. Two years ago, LEAP used its general funds to establish a grant program that would award member municipalities $10,000 each to purchase and install works of public art, with an emphasis on sculpture art. But there was a catch, sort of.

“We required the applicants to develop an art task force and a public art policy,” Trezise said. “What we’re really doing is putting in place a deep sustainable commitment to the arts. (The grant) was just the carrot.”

The first year, LEAP awarded two grants, which went to DeWitt Township and Mason, each of which has a policy in place on managing its public art. The following year, the program was expanded to three, with St. Johns, De- Witt and Meridian Township getting the money. Trezise said this year he’s had four applicants: Delta Township, Delhi Township, East Lansing and Lansing. All of them have public art policies in place except for one: Lansing. No art for you! To echo the oft-spoken frustrations of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, the capital city is indeed the hole in the middle of this doughnut.

Last October, Debbie Mikula was named executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, a nonprofit group that provides education, funding, resources and consulting services to capital area artists and arts and cultural agencies. She said one of the first things she did when she took over was meet with LEAP leaders about Lansing’s public art policy — or, rather, its lack of one.

“When I asked (the board) why Lansing didn’t have a public art policy in place, the answer was that nobody was concentrating on it,” Mikula said. “It takes time to research ordinances and guidelines. So I stepped up to the plate. The City of Lansing should be eligible for that money.”

Mikula started working immediately on a plan to develop a Lansing public art commission. She met with city staff earlier this year and started researching art commissions in other Michigan cities, including Ann Arbor and next-door neighbor East Lansing, which recently updated its 22-year-old guidelines. (Last September, the East Lansing Arts Commission facilitated the placement of the Mary P. Sharp sculpture next to its City Hall; in November 2012, it worked to get a mural on the Division Street parking garage.) Mikula also looked in other states, including St. Paul, Minn., and Columbus, Ohio.

“I took the best of the best of what I found and molded and shaped the language so we didn’t have to start from scratch,” Mikula said. She also met with Lansing Fourth Ward City Councilwoman Jessica Yorko about the next step: Adding a chapter to the Lansing Codified Ordinances to “encourage and provide provisions for public art.” She points out, however, that a potential Lansing art commission would be a separate entity entirely.

“We’re just helping to create (the ordinance),” Mikula said. “It has nothing to do with the Arts Council — there’s not enough time for anyone to take it on. Our job is to advance arts and culture in the region. This is something specific.”

Last week, the issue was introduced at the city’s weekly committee meeting; next week it is scheduled to be referred to the General Services Committee. For her part, Yorko said she was surprised Lansing had been missing out on a chance for a little self-expression.

“This is something we need to have in place,” Yorko said. “I just wanted to make sure Lansing wasn’t disqualified (from getting the LEAP grant) again. Nobody stands in the way of public art on my watch.”

Yorko mentioned a building in Kalamazoo near where she used to live that used a public mural to initiate the renovation of a dilapidated building.

“Art can be a powerful tool for social change,” she said. “Public art can accelerate inspiration.”

Mikula anticipates the passage of the ordinance by the end of this month, which is coming up pretty quickly considering no one’s been selected yet to be on the commission when it becomes an actual thing.

“Jessica made us work a little faster that we anticipated,” Mikua said. “But it’s OK, we’re ready.”

Although some municipal art commissions in larger cities include architectural guidelines for new construction projects, Mikula said the Lansing commission would focus on “art enrichment in the forms of graphics, murals and sculpture for civic buildings and spaces.” She said it’s conceived as a five-member committee that would issue requests for proposals to artists, then take their recommendations to the mayor, who would take it to the City Council.

“It’s not going to revolve around this money from LEAP, but it was a nice impetus,” Mikula said. “There are other projects that could be envisioned. As long as they fit in with the environment and have meaning for that community, art can create a real sense of space and give that area a personality.”

“Attracting and keeping high-end global talent here in Lansing is a real challenge when you’re competing with London or Switzerland or even Chicago,” Trezise said. “With the MSU teams and places like the Wharton Center, we have New York-level arts and athletics here. We’re a damn good place.”