Hartford Ramps Up Its One Percent Art Program
Alexander Calder's 50-foot-high “Stegosaurus” has towered over the Alfred E. Burr Memorial Mall since 1973.
From “Stegosaurus” to “Stone Field,” Connecticut’s capital has had its fair share of talked-about, even monumental, public art, but Hartford still lacks the glow of world-class culture as a successful drawing card. The salutary effect of Calder’s big orange preconception-crunching work outside the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art only goes so far.
Now, going “all in” on the funding-public-art game, Hartford is considering bright lights to go with its big-city appeal—a light-art-as-beacon installation for a cityscape that already has enough cultural offerings to make it “shine” at night.
It may all be possible with the launch of Hartford’s Percent for the Arts program this spring, which pledges that 1 percent of city money be invested in capital improvements to fund public art. The ordinance has been on the books since 2009 but was dormant until Mayor Pedro Segarra began funneling resources into cultural and art programs after election in 2010.
“Our creative economy drives business, it drives jobs and innovation and it’s why I’m committed to growing it,” Segarra said in a statement. “I’m excited about this program and its potential to increase tourism in our capital city.”
There is $600,000 sitting in the city’s coffers for public art. Those funds can be used for up to three projects in any one fiscal year, with unused dollars rolling over.
The Marketing, Events & Cultural Affairs Division (MECA) has been charged with getting the program off the ground and keeping it in flight—a task Director Kristina Newman-Scott takes very seriously. “The last thing I would want is a big flanky object in the middle of downtown just because it’s a big flanky object that’s made by Jeff Koons,” says Newman-Scott. “People will come to Hartford because it’s doing this thing that makes sense in our city versus just being an object or a public art piece that they can see anywhere in the world.”
She wants to make a statement with this first city-funded public art project—one that says, “We are Hartford,” and she doesn’t have a problem admitting the city is nowhere near the trend’s cutting edge. “We have an opportunity now because there are so many cities who’ve tried and succeeded and tried and failed, that we were able to learn a lot and make smarter decisions,” she says.
Between calls to other cities like Tampa, which has an extensive public-art program, and reading policy research documents on public art in London, Newman-Scott has been busy. She began writing program guidelines last winter and has consulted with Tamara Dimitri, the Art in Public Spaces Program Specialist of the Connecticut Office of the Arts (COA), who handles the state’s Percent for the Arts program, on how best to roll out the city’s version.
Contract documents also need to be drawn up before the first request for proposal (RFP) can be put out later this month. A partnership between MECA and the Greater Hartford Arts Council still needs to be finalized. The council has been responsible for some of the city’s largest and most recent public artwork including the Lincoln Financial Sculpture Walk—a family of 16 diverse sculptures along the riverfront—and its most recent project, “Song of Books,” a sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist Howard Kalish that sits in front of the Albany Avenue branch of the Hartford Public Library. The council has commissioned 30 of the city’s 79 permanent pieces of public art.
“They are excellent at what they do,” says Newman-Scott. The hope is the council will handle administration on Percent for the Arts as they do for other MECA programs.
“We’ve had very preliminary discussions,” says Elizabeth Hucker, director of community investment at the Greater Hartford Arts Council. “There’s certainly an interest on our part.”
When all is said and done, Hartford will join the remarkably small pool of Connecticut towns with active Percent for the Arts programs—New Haven (first with such a program) and New Britain being the only others.
Still, these towns aren’t exactly rolling in money from capital improvements, which are few and far between. Stephen Hard, executive director of the Greater New Britain Arts Alliance, says since the town instituted the ordinance a decade ago, they’ve only had two projects funded with 1 percent monies—the abstract sculptures “Home” by New Britain’s own Craig M. Frederick, and “Ascension” by Carlus Dyer. A third piece, “Spiral Exchange” by Carol Salmonsen, has been already commissioned with funds stemming from a $42 million police station renovation.
New Britain’s ordinance differs from Hartford’s in that there is a monetary cap. Only up to $150,000 can be spent on public art instead of the full 1 percent—a stipulation Hard calls, “very limiting.” He’s unsure why the council would “cap the cap,” and not account for inflation over the last 10 years, but says he respects the council’s desire to be fiscally responsible.
New Haven has completed over 30 projects since their “Percent for the Arts” program was instituted in 1981, including “Ascending Birds,” a sculpture in City Hall by David Von Schlegell, “Path of Stars” along Crown Street, and “Millennium Relief” by David Colbert at the Millennium Plaza. Vivian Nabeta, director of Arts, Culture and Tourism for the City of New Haven, says there will be a few school-construction projects in the next few years that they’re hoping to get involved in.
Percent for the Arts may not be the public-art cash cow some had hoped, but towns across the state fill the gap through other programs and partnerships. Successful relationships have included New Haven’s abstract 375th anniversary collaboration with Site Projects Inc. that lit up the night for four days last April with Yvette Mattern’s laser light installation, “Night Rainbow.” Last September, nine metered parking spaces in Hartford were transformed with sod and outdoor furniture into living art installations for 24 hours on PARK(ing) Day, a result of a partnership between The Greater Hartford Arts Council, the Hartford Business Improvement District and The Knox Foundation.
Why the push for public art? Municipalities who participate in these cross-departmental relationships do so for the same reason—because it creates more interest and foot traffic. “There’s strength in numbers. If all of us are doing these projects, you get more bang for your buck working together,” Nabeta says, citing projects in New Haven. “It gives more force to people coming out to see things because they’re not just coming out to see one thing. It creates extra vibrancy.”
That’s why MECA isn’t going it alone in the launch of their Percent for the Arts program. The more resources involved, the bigger the potential impact when the first city-funded art piece is finally unveiled. “Doing public art from a city perspective and overseeing it as a city is different than doing it as a museum or an art space,” says Newman-Scott. “We will always have hiccups. Nothing is going to be perfect but let’s be as thoughtful as possible before we roll it out.”
Whether they splurge for the light show or go for something more traditional—another sculpture, perhaps—there’s the hope this new artistic addition could boost the city’s sorely lacking tourist appeal. “When the sun goes down, Hartford sort of needs something to make it more pedestrian-friendly,” acknowledges Dimitri. “A light installation could really benefit the community.”
Ideally, Newman-Scott would like to unveil a completed work by next winter in conjunction with some of the city’s holiday festivities. The earliest she’d be interested in opening it would be September alongside the popular Envisionfest. Connecting the project with another Hartford attraction will hype its debut and draw more visitors.
Newman-Scott may be ambitious—and enthusiastic without question—but she’s not unrealistic. While there’s massive potential for this inaugural project, those involved are focused more on making the right choice versus the most ostentatious one.
“Six hundred thousand dollars isn’t going to get me 'The Gates’ in Central Park,” she admits, “but we have an opportunity for an 18-square-mile city to really host an amazing artistic voice within the field of public art.”
Hartford Ramps Up Its One Percent Art Program