From Salem to Somerville, you can get your art fix by simply strolling around your neighborhoods.
In artist Jeremy Barnett’s mind, public art is a gift. It may serve many purposes and come in all sorts of shapes and forms, but ultimately the result is the same.
“In my head, public art is a choice a community makes to invest in itself, to share some kind of feeling and expression with everyone who passes through your community,” Barnett said.
And nearly every community along the North Shore and beyond has chosen to make that investment in some shape or form, even if they don’t realize it. In this age of COVID-19 when museums remain closed or are restricted to appointment-only visitors, there is still plenty of art to see. In fact, it’s all around you.
What is public art?
The easy answer is it’s artwork that is readily available to the public. It’s outdoors or in a common space like the Spirit of ’76, the famous painting by Archibald M. Willard that hangs in Abbot Hall, or the gallery and artwork at Abbot Public Library, both in Marblehead.
More recently, it’s the painted barriers protecting the outdoor dining spaces that have sprouted up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the signs and posters placed in windows and scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk thanking front line workers and asking for peace and solidarity are in their own way public art.
For Barnett, you can’t talk about public art without talking about public space.
“What public space is and why we have it and how we interpret public space – it’s sort of weirdly American,” he said.
Public parks and open spaces were born of need as people flocked to the city and some, over the years, have in a way become works of art in themselves. Barnett pointed to the Boston Public Gardens and even Salem Commons. It’s about a community investing in something that is absolutely for everybody, he said.
Public art can speak to history, like the Roger Conant statue in Salem, or it can be a whimsical surprise, like the seal in Crocker Park in Marblehead.
“You don’t go to Crocker Park to see the seal, but when you do see it it’s delightful,” said Barnett.
Stephanie Mckay, co-chair of the Medford Arts Council, said public art fosters community identity, gives a sense of belonging, and contributes to the cultural, physical and economic vitality of a community.
“During the pandemic, public art can provide hope and document a specific time in history, marking place and creating memories of people, events and history,” she said. “Public art can also give voice to historically marginalized communities, expressing their desires and hopes for their community and themselves.”
To Somerville Arts Council Executive Director Greg Jenkins, public art is about expression, education, community, cultural and economic development, and financial support.
“If you’ve got the whole city as a canvas to support these artists and work in the community, then how do you do it? Through switchboxes, murals, and all the work in the squares we’ve done over the years,” he said. “It’s about place-making, and how you highlight the existing assets within a community while creating structures by which you can support artists.”
But while public art reflects an investment, because someone, a group or community has paid for it, sometimes it can be willed into place.
Ask Saugonians and they will tell you there is no public art in Saugus, but Barnett begs to differ. He noted that residents there made a conscious decision to save the iconic Route 1 orange dinosaur and it was rescued, as were the cows and the cactus sign formerly of the Hilltop Steak House. It might lean more toward kitsch than fine art, but it’s their art nonetheless.
Likewise Rockport has Motif No.1, a beloved fishing shack that has become an iconic piece of public art in and of itself. Originally built in 1840 and rebuilt after it was destroyed in the Blizzard of ’78, the shack is considered “the most often painted building in America.” It’s sought out by artists and sightseers as well because of that reputation.
Is it art? It is now.
“Something sort of magical happens when we push the edges of what’s expected,” Barnett said.
The Chandler Hovey Lighthouse in Marblehead was not meant to be an art piece. It’s an old industrial style lighthouse yet it grounds the space. It draws you in just as the murals in Salem draw you in.
Why is it important?
According to Debra Corbett, a board member with the nonprofit Melrose Arts, the benefit of public art is just that – an experience for the public.
“Public art provides a sense of pride and vitality to a neighborhood that is unique and different from visiting a museum or gallery,” Corbett said. “Public art provides a platform for everyone to enjoy and experience.”
Barnett said public art is important because it can be beautiful and uplifting, it can make people feel connected to a community in very powerful ways.
“It can be a source of pride, a source of gathering, a punctuation mark,” he said. “And on a deep level it does speak to the investment in the community.”
On the practical side, public art, like Salem’s Punto Urban Art Museum murals can create a destination, which is good for business and community pride, Barnett said.
Public art can be a destination, or something you take in along the way. The fact is, it’s everywhere, all you have to do is take the time to see it or get out there and find it.