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The backstory:  What it Takes to Administer Temporary Public Art

Pegi Christiansen is a freelance organizer, writer, educator, and performance artist. She is chair and site manager for IN:SITE and is also the founder and co-producer of the Performance Art Showcase, highlighting talents from Southeastern Wisconsin in an annual show. She serves on the Milwaukee County Public Art Committee.

Generally, I weigh about 112 pounds. In July, a week before the start of a project IN:SITE did mounting eleven installations in the Park East Corridor near Downtown Milwaukee, I dipped under 105. The last time this happened was during my divorce twenty years ago.

I am the chair and site manager of IN:SITE, fostering temporary public art in Milwaukee County since 2006. Perhaps all public art administration is stressful, but curating, managing, promoting, and maintaining temporary public art has challenges that top those of permanent projects. 

At the same time, temporary public art has great value. In July, Jack Becker, editor of Public Art Review, spoke at Cardinal Stitch University about the current public art scene. Jack focused quite a bit of attention on temporary public art as the wave of the future. He discussed that cities have used temporary installations to attract tourism. Temporary public art helps train artists to do public art and educates the public about the possibilities of public art. He listed the reduced costs, risk, liability, and maintenance problems as added benefits. 

Currently one major piece of permanent public art costs $100,000 at the very minimum. Temporary public art, in cities like New York and Los Angeles, is starting to become glitzy and garner funding in this same range. Most of the time temporary public art is inexpensive so that neighborhoods without $100,000 to spend can afford art that will draw people to particular spaces. Often these spaces are in transition, like IN:SITE's project in the Park East Corridor, for example.

Milwaukee’s underutilized, only partially completed Park East Freeway was the first freeway in the nation to be willfully demolished. It was replaced with an at-grade six-lane boulevard. Once removed, more than 24 acres became available for redevelopment.  Development slowed to a crawl due to the economic downturn, and the City of Milwaukee Arts Board approved money so IN:SITE could provide artist stipends for temporary public art that would encourage people to explore the area.

In order to administer this project, IN:SITE needed to:

--Locate the appropriate site(s) for each project.
--Preview each proposal with the Milwaukee Arts Board, the Milwaukee Department of City Development, and the property owner(s).
--Obtain special events insurance.
--Secure funding for non-stipend expenses, like insurance and signage.
--Negotiate agreements with property owner(s).
--Obtain permits.
--Negotiate a contract with each lead artist.
--Oversee the installation of each project.
--Promote the project and generate media coverage.
--Oversee maintenance and de-installation of each project.

All these elements would be needed for permanent public art, but normally this is with one artist at one location. Due to the expense of permanent public art, there is usually a primary stakeholder involved that owns the land and/or is the principle patron. Those funding permanent public art, like the Milwaukee County Public Art Committee, often have paid staff to manage the project.

IN:SITE is always jockeying with multiples of these elements with no paid staff. For the Park East project, thirteen artists did eleven projects at sixteen different sites. In addition, as IN:SITE advisor Sara Daleiden notes, all these stakeholders may have diverse interests.  Sara is an artist and organizer currently living in Los Angeles where she is involved in many temporary public art projects, including the Los Angeles Urban Rangers.  Daleiden proposes that curating and managing temporary public art is an art in itself. Below are three backstories for your consideration:

Chris Bach and Cat Pham “Framing Place”

Chris Bach and Cat Pham “Framing Place
Four viewing frames that single out moments of interest throughout the corridor.

Backstory: Pham and Bach originally wanted to have five viewing frames, and IN:SITE wanted a project that would be located on multiple sites.  Of course, this meant a lot of property owner cooperation. One site was on City of Milwaukee land, and the Department of City Development had suggested using it. Getting permission involved putting together a proposal and attending a meeting and then there was a vote by a Common Council committee. It was approved. Then I found out that I had to get a building permit for it too. I thought this would be easy. I checked to make sure what documents I needed, secured them, and went to the appropriate city office building.  There, I discovered that I had to get the viewing frame approved by a different division. This would have required going to the site and taking special measurements.  If I submitted an application, it would take two weeks to get approval. IN:SITE didn't have two weeks. To get permission in time would mean four hours of walking the paperwork through the building. The artists decided to forget this site and stuck with four frames.

Armando Gallegos “Desire, Luxury, Showmanship
An 8-foot high image of Liberace juxtaposed with a 2003 photograph of the demolition of the Park East Freeway.

Backstory: Up until now, all of IN:SITE's projects have been accessible to the artist, though maybe via a ladder.  This project was mounted on the top of a four-story storage building owned by Time Warner Cable. Amy Mangrich, IN:SITE's materials advisor, needed to make sure Liberace was not going to fall down and hurt or kill someone!  Amy and I met with Armando twice and Amy emailed him special instructions about how to create a bracket unit for Liberace that would fit securely over the parapet. Time Warner was very supportive of the project, to the point of becoming a major sponsor, and two maintenance men helped Armando haul up Liberace and bolt down him and the vinyl image of the freeway.  I stopped by three times  the day the project was mounted and every day for a week following.  Liberace was fine.  In our anxiety over him, Amy and I did not carefully consider the vinyl image of the freeway. It started to rip within a couple of days. Mother Nature is vicious.

Ted Brusubardis “Landscape”

Ted Brusubardis “Landscape
A contemplative sound and video piece projected on the east and west sides of Water Street.
Kasia Drake “Uniting the Fence”
A community volunteer effort to alter a chain-link fence with fabric.
Neil Gasparka “Park East Information Center and Museum"
Displays of the past, present, and future of the Park East inside the first floor of the Sydney Hih building.

Backstory: Temporary public art often demands a lot of hands on labor.
Ted couldn't use timers on the rearview projectors one of the other artists in the project, Annushka Peck, loaned to him because it would have burnt out the bulbs.  He had to go in and set the projectors up and turn them on and off every Friday and Saturday night for six weekends. Three nights he had to work and couldn't turn them on, so IN:SITE's three project managers took turns doing this.

53 volunteers helped Kasia latch pieces of material onto a 500-foot long chain-link fence on six different afternoons.  It never rained! I assisted finding volunteers and latched for three of the afternoons.  It was great fun talking to strangers--a man who grew up in Peru, a young boy who had just visited relatives in South Korea, and members from the city's avant-garde theater scene.

Neil had to get a building that hadn't been open for four years in shape to use as a museum space. With the aid of many helpers, three big dumpsters of trash were taken out, a huge commercial oven was dismantled and lugged away, and four years of grime were removed with sweeping and vacuuming and mopping. IN:SITE project managers and associates were part of this effort. Then, the night before the building was going to open, the generator the building owner, Rob Ruvin, had rented to provide electricity shut down. I came for over an hour to problem solve with Neil how to get it up and running again. I was also there for four hours when the alternator for the generator broke five days later.

Kasia Drake “Uniting the Fence”

I have more stories, but these are enough.  They explain why, despite being nervous and eating more than usual, I lost eight pounds in a month.

Along with Jack Becker's reasons about why temporary public art is valuable, IN:SITE would add some others. It has the ability to be an accurate reflection of the ever-changing attitudes and complexion of a neighborhood, it doesn’t impose on an environment, and it is non-hierarchical as opposed to monumental permanent public art.

IN:SITE's website has a map of the project created with the help of the Department of City Development at http://www.insitemilwaukee.org
Six of the 11 projects remain in place until the end of September 2009: "Framing Place," "cede," "Uniting the Fence," "Water Source," "Desire, Luxury, Showmanship," and "Guide."


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