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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Public Art Helps Engage Community

John Joyce has headed a beautification committee in Portsmouth for several years. Here, he kneels next to a bronze toad outside the Children's Museum of Virginia on Aug. 1, 2013. (Hyunsoo Leo Kim | The Virginian-Pilot)

Our Views
A commentary from the Virginian-Pilot 
August 11, 2013

   ART CONFINED to a museum speaks to a select few; public art speaks to everyone. That critical difference says volumes about a place.

   Public art articulates a city’s priorities, its values, its vision for itself. And while beauty will always be in the eyes of the beholder, the mere effort to beautify stands as evidence of a community’s intellectual and aesthetic ambitions.

   That’s why great cities don’t build courthouses or city halls that look like strip malls: Public architecture says something about what a place finds important.

   So, indeed, does public art.

   The Pilot’s Janie Bryant recently detailed new efforts to bring art to Portsmouth’s streets. In a place struggling with pockets of endemic poverty, with constant fiscal difficulties, with a huge infrastructure backlog, art may seem like a low priority for Portsmouth .

   But the Supporters of Portsmouth Public Art have recognized that the mere effort to make the city more beautiful is an example of the kind of civic engagement that helps every place it happens. Because that kind of citizen involvement underlies every effort to move a community forward.

   The group was born with the desire to save a bronze toad, which won hearts at a city sculpture competition. The group raised $8,000 to keep the outsized critter in Portsmouth.

   Naysayers look at the metal amphibian near the Children’s Museum of Virginia and see squandered money and energy that could’ve been spent on other things.

   Children see a nose to rub for luck.

   All the thousands of people who believe in Portsmouth, who believe in what’s possible through hard work and hope, will see the city grow a little brighter as each hand passes over the toad’s nose, as each person finds delight in another unexpected mural, in every surprise sculpture.

   Portsmouth’s future lies with them.

Portsmouth Art Movement Gains Traction

John Joyce has headed a beautification committee in Portsmouth for several years. Here, he kneels next to a bronze toad outside the Children's Museum of Virginia on Aug. 1, 2013. (Hyunsoo Leo Kim | The Virginian-Pilot)

By Janie Bryant

It started two years ago with a toad.
Not just any toad. This was a child-size bronze amphibian entered into Portsmouth's annual outdoor sculpture competition.
Children loved it, warts and all. So did art advocates who were loath to see it leave the city. So they raised about $8,000, and the toad now squats permanently outside the Children's Museum of Virginia.
That push gave birth to the Supporters of Portsmouth Public Art, a growing group of art lovers who have made it their mission to preserve and spread art throughout the city.
"Not just downtown," said John Joyce, president of the Supporters of Portsmouth Public Art. "Not just midtown."
It's a trend of beautification that has taken off in cities across the country, a natural offshoot of downtown revitalization efforts, according to Nancy Perry, Portsmouth's director of museums.
Norfolk established a public art program in 2006. Since then, the city has spent about $2 million on an array of projects, including an elephant sculpture at the Virginia Zoo and art along the light-rail route.
Public art is something Joyce always looks for when he travels. His favorites are works that have "a little bit of humor," he said.
Barbara Vincent, an artist who is part of the effort, also takes note of what other cities do.
"Thoughts Running Like a River" by Pattie Porker Firestone is in the Portsmouth Art and 
Cultural Center Courtyard on Aug. 1, 2013 (Photo by Hyunsoo Leo Kim/ The Virginian-Pilot)

"We want to make it clear to people that we're not just going to buy sculpture and plop it in front of buildings," said Vincent, who owned an art gallery in Olde Towne for several years.
Public art can be anything from whimsical bike racks and park benches to murals, she and Joyce said. In some cities, Vincent has even seen crosswalks painted as public art.
"If you improve the way your environment looks, it will improve your sensibilities," she said.
Joyce and Vincent are Olde Towne residents who are active in the community: For several years, Joyce has headed a beautification committee that has improved and maintained medians and parks in the city's oldest neighborhood. Vincent is a former chairwoman of the Museum and Fine Arts Commission. Joyce was on the commission, too.
The Supporters of Portsmouth Public Art is largely made up of people who have worked behind the scenes to build the city's art offerings. In addition to Joyce and Vincent, who are longtime patrons of the arts, Sue Landerman, a Portsmouth sculptor whose work on brick can be seen at universities and schools all over the country, is a member. Landerman sculpted the bronze statue of Col. William Crawford, the founder of Portsmouth, at High and Crawford streets.

Malani Green, 3 of Hampton, checks out the bronze toad in front of the Children's Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth on Aug. 1 2013 (photo by Hyunsoo Leo Kim/ the Virginian-Pilot)

Other members, including retired Pilot reporter and columnist Ida Kay Jordan, give Landerman credit for efforts to save the Al Hirschfeld-style mural from The Circle, a 1940s restaurant that was slated for demolition.
The organization plans to work with the city to help its civic leagues and other groups use art to enhance neighborhoods and schools. And it has come on the scene at a good time: New City Manager John Rowe is a believer in the power of art to make a city appear welcoming.
"It's a concept and an idea that John is really pushing people to embrace," Perry said.
Perry has attended meetings of the nonprofit as a city liaison. She's also getting direction from Rowe on projects he wants the city to undertake, such as art wraps to cover downtown's aesthetically challenged signal boxes.
The city is working with artists on two murals on public buildings downtown.
The nonprofit is also focusing on murals, working with Sam Welty, the artist behind Cedar Grove Cemetery's mural of the Battle of Craney Island. Supporters have identified about eight private buildings that would provide a good canvas.
"Everybody is working collaboratively for this overall vision of betterment of their community," Perry said.
Joyce said the organization will be seeking city approval for a mural on the side of a commercial building that can be seen from the atrium of the Children's Museum.
It isn't the first time Joyce has pitched the idea of putting art closer to the people: He was on the Museum and Fine Arts Commission when members were brainstorming ways to get more people into the city's arts center.
The center is housed in the 1846 Courthouse, a building with plenty of architectural dignity but one that didn't shout "there's art in here now."
Joyce suggested bringing the art outside to the people. The idea sparked the sculpture competition that has continued to transform the courtyard of the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center into an outdoor exhibit several months of the year. That brought lots of public art to that corner of downtown.
And, eventually, it brought the toad.
And then public art took a leap in Portsmouth.
Janie Bryant, 757-446-2453,
This article is reprinted by permission from the Virginian-Pilot.