Utility box art

Craig Wilson's aerial photographs were selected in 2016 to test out a program that turns utility boxes into public art. 

PHOTO BY AMBER ARNOLD -- STATE JOURNAL

Mundane utility boxes across the city will be the next sites for highlighting local artists under an expanded program that transforms ordinary urban infrastructure into works of art.

The program is based on a pilot test last year when four city-owned utility boxes on the Capitol Square were wrapped with photographs printed on vinyl. After determining the material could withstand Madison’s four seasons and pedestrian-heavy traffic, the city looked into expanding the program.

“It totally transforms a very utilitarian utility box that is part of our city’s infrastructure that people notice in a good way,” city urban design planner Rebecca Cnare said.

With the City Council's approval Tuesday, the Madison Arts Commission will select artwork from local artists that will be printed on vinyl and wrapped around utility boxes. City staff has prioritized utility boxes downtown and on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus or near public destinations such as libraries, in addition to boxes that have graffiti.

The resolution authorizes up to $30,000 to fund 25 utility box wraps, with 80 percent of the funding coming from the Municipal Art Fund and the rest from the Monroe Street Reconstruction project in the Engineering Division. 

Ald. Ledell Zellers, District 2, said the program adds "brightness and interest" to areas with utility boxes. 

"I think that in general utility boxes are really ugly, and I think that this really helps kind of perk them up," Zellers said.  

The program’s two-fold goal is to transform ordinary elements of the city’s urban landscape and provide more ways to showcase local artists. Selected artists would receive a $400 licensing fee for each image placed on a city-owned utility box.

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“This is an opportunity to expose a whole bunch of other local professional artists,” Cnare said.

Local artist Craig Wilson, a lifelong Madisonian who moved to Cambridge about a year ago, creates low-altitude aerial photographs by attaching a camera to kites that he makes. His images were selected to be featured as part of the pilot project in 2016.

“The goal of artists is to beautify and make a statement and to have that statement be seen,” Wilson said. “Having these utility boxes wrapped with art is a great way to have art visible.”

Since the expanded program was introduced, Cnare said community members who are not professional artists have expressed an interested in participating. While that aspect of the program is still developing, Cnare said the city would reserve four or five boxes near libraries that could be an opportunity for a community-based art project.

Cnare said the city hopes to have some wraps installed this fall.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.