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Public art for public works

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Fast forward to spring 2007. An afternoon walk leads us through burgeoning foliage and beside the creek that runs east of the new Chapel Hill town operations center. Imagine our surprise when we come upon a landscaped plaza with polished granite perching stones. An enormous stone wall invites our attention, and we encounter a compelling array of cast-bronze tools. We ponder the objects, guessing about their use, and leave the spot with a deeper appreciation for the diverse labor that maintains the physical attributes of our community.

Three years ago, the Chapel Hill Town Council established its Percent for Art program, which allocates 1 percent of the total budget of selected capital projects for the creation, installation and maintenance of permanent works. At the operations center--the largest project the town has ever undertaken--the program has commissioned artist Larry Kirkland to create the plaza and stone wall to reflect the mission of the public works department, and how it binds us together. Kirkland also designed a curved marble and granite bench for the entrance to Chapel Hill Transit, inspired by the shape and form of an enormous bus. Images seen along transit routes, as well as essential mechanical parts and iconic symbols, will be engraved in the bench. These public artworks link the departments to our neighborhoods and make public statements about our commitment to environmental sensitivity and sustainability.

Historically, art-in-architecture commemorated the meaning of people and place. Since the early 20th century, programs such as the Works Progress Administration, the National Endowment for the Arts and Percent for Art have offered us new interpretations of the public realm through the work and sensibility of artists. Public art--unlike other artistic methodologies--relies upon interaction among artist, community, site, designers and architects, civic leaders, and commissioning agencies. Percent for Art commissions engage residents in the development of all artworks, during artist selection, design and approval. Government has a responsibility to create optimistic expressions of our potential. Through investment in public artworks, Chapel Hill is investing in its residents, its visitors and its future. These projects bring art into the realm of daily life and help make it accessible to all. This collaborative process produces art that can change our perceptions and realign our expectations, which may not always make us feel comfortable: Memorials remind us of a struggle or of the dead; other artworks confront us with our failures or ask us to keep reaching higher to learn, test an idea or achieve a goal.

We do not have to "like" a particular work to be excited or pleased by its presence. Rather, public art, when integrated into our experience of public space, contributes meaning to our town by distinguishing the unique and special qualities of our community; creates coherent frames for social and communal discourse that in turn teach us about each other; and, fundamentally enriches our lives.

(The author chairs the Percent for Art committee of the Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission.)

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