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A (new) Genre Landscape: Artsy parksy

Public art finds funds again in Atlanta

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Local photographer and conceptual artist Michael Reese wants to make pigs fly. Literally. Beginning June 7, Reese will set himself up in Grant Park and invite visitors to write down impossible dreams, attach them to Frisbees imprinted with the image of a pig, and send them off into the park.

"When Pigs Fly: A Socially Interactive Dream Repository" is one of 12 temporary public artworks that comprise A (new) Genre Landscape, a citywide project taking place in nine public parks during this summer. Reese, who responded to an open call for entries last fall, wanted to create a work "where people can bring their hopes, dreams and impossibilities" and reimagine the impossible as possible.

A thread of hope and earnestness runs through all 12 works. But if the project offers the city a series of collective "Kumbaya" moments, it does so against a backdrop of protracted political battles over who has the right to define public space, and whose money should be funding it.

The recent history of public art in Atlanta has been a quagmire of lost funding, wild accusations, and so much finger pointing that John Travolta should be suing for royalties. A brief explosion of new public art in the run up to the 1996 Olympic Games delivered several notable pieces of public sculpture, such as "Homage to King" at Boulevard and Freedom Parkway, but largely failed to produce the ongoing public art funding that arts activists had wanted.

By the fall of 2007, simmering tensions within some sectors of the creative community threatened to erupt. The Atlanta Percent for Art Campaign has publicly threatened legal action against the city of Atlanta in an attempt to recoup some $5 million in what the group claims are lost "percent-for-art" funds from city coffers during the Franklin administration. According to the city's public art ordinance, the Office of Cultural Affairs is required to collect and administer 1.5 percent of the city's capital improvement budgets for the express purpose of creating and maintaining public art. The OCA admits on its own website that much of this money has not materialized. "It's a lot of money, and nobody knows what happened to it," says Evan Levy, an artist, co-founder of the Atlanta Percent for Art Campaign, and project director for 2005's Art in Freedom Park.

While eligible public art funds have gone largely uncollected by the city, A (new) Genre Landscape, however, benefits from the percent-for-art funding stream that the city frequently fails to tap. The project is funded through the 2005 Greenspace and Recreation Opportunity Bond, says Eddie Granderson, program manager of the city's public art program at OCA. The bond netted $553,000 for public art, $50,000 of which has been allocated to A (new) Genre Landscape. (Remaining funds will be disbursed for a mural at the MLK Natatorium, a series of so-called gateways in area parks, and a handful of smaller projects.) Granderson hopes that additional public art money will be made available from the bond's second drawdown in 2009.

If A (new) Genre Landscape has broken through a funding barrier, it likewise breaks through a perceived aesthetic barrier. Atlanta has a history of progressive public art, including major temporary works by artists such as Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, and Lynne Yamamoto that were part of the Arts Festival of Atlanta's Site Works Program throughout the 1980s and '90s. Art in Freedom Park showcased the work of some 30 local artists throughout the summer of 2005, and Atlanta Celebrates Photography has been commissioning new, temporary public work since 2005, including a new piece by Jacqueline Tarry and Bradley McCallum to be mounted on a water tower in the Old Fourth Ward in October.

Perception, however, lags several years behind reality. Many artists, including some who have work in A (new) Genre Landscape, fear that the public too often equates public art with bronze statues. They point to New York and Seattle as cities that have broken down that perception with organizations such as New York's Public Art Fund. The fund regularly supports temporary works in a variety of media, including sound, video, and disposable materials.

Each work in A (new) Genre Landscape is intended to interact with the park's community. "I don't want projects landing in from outer space," says Stuart Keeler, curator and project organizer. "I made that very, very clear." Outside of that single caveat, the artists were given wide range in defining what "interact" means. Georgia State University sculpture professor Ruth Stanford, for example, will install Victorian cast-iron plaques on trees throughout Grant Park and create a map based on their locations to teach visitors about the site's history and topography. At Morningside's Sunken Garden Park, Joseph Peragine, Pam Longobardi, and Craig Dongoski will work together with citizens and the city's Office of Sustainability to amass thousands of cast-off water bottles in a sculptural form. The ad hoc trio hopes to spark a conversation about water use and drought.

The choice of Keeler as curator was designed to sidestep the competing agendas among the city, county, arts activists, business-backed groups, and various artists' cliques. Although Keeler has worked more than 17 years in public art, he remains a political outsider with less than a year of experience in Atlanta. Keeler was chosen to be, in Granderson's words, "as neutral as possible." Artist Avantika Bawa was grateful for the opportunity to work with a minimum of political umbrage. "Not really knowing the quirks and the different sensibilities within the art community allowed [Keeler] to choose artists and assign parks without any bias," says Bawa, whose brightly colored "dysfunctional blips" will be placed throughout East Lake Park.

Keeler's outsider status may have paid off. A (new) Genre Landscape has catalyzed a tenuous alignment among a wide range of public art stakeholders. Levy supports Keeler's efforts and hopes for "more opportunities like this in the future." Louise Shaw, chair of Atlanta Public Arts Legacy Fund calls the project "a bright spot" in the city's public art history.

Meanwhile, organizers are betting on Michael Reese's impossible dream Frisbees and the other 11 works to demonstrate the potential of socially based public art to the city as a whole. They hope for a domino effect that will bolster the city's public art infrastructure. And it may happen. You know, when pigs fly.

Participating artists and parks: Adair Park II, Danielle Roney; Brownwood Park, Tristan Al-Haddad; Coan Park, Matt Haffner; East Lake Park, Avantika Bawa and Nat Slaughter; Grant Park, Last Stand Collaborative (Martha Whittington, Raymondo Vaughn, Julie Newton, Coby Cranman), Michael Reese and Ruth Stanford; Lake Claire Park, Angus Galloway; Mozley Park, Sheila Pree Bright; Perkerson Park, Steve Jarvis and Susan Krause; Sunken Garden Park, Joe Peragine, Pam Longobardi and Craig Dongoski

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