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Cap Times Talk public art

Dane Arts director Mark Fraire speaks during a Cap Times Talk on public art at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Wednesday. 

Madison artist Kelly Parks Snider sees potential locations for public art everywhere in Madison.

“I’m just driving through town, and I think, ‘There should be art there, there should be art there.’ Everywhere I go, all the time,” Parks Snider said at a Cap Times Talk on public art at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on Wednesday evening. Arts reporter Lindsay Christians moderated the event, which was attended by over 100 people.

“Many times we think art belongs in institutions and museums, so we have a hard time seeing that it needs to be in all kinds of spaces,” Parks Snider said.

Local artists and arts administrators who participated on the panel agreed Madison should have more public art and better support its artists. And art in the public sector can test the community’s opinion and challenge the boundaries between artists and those who are funding the project.

However public art is defined, Dane Arts Director Mark Fraire said the “beauty of public art is that you love it or you hate it.”

For example, University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Donald Lipski’s infamous Nails’ Tails sculpture next to Camp Randall draws an almost immediate negative reaction while Sid Boyum’s smiling mushroom by the bike path on Atwood Avenue is beloved by neighbors.

“Public art is the nexus of gatherings for me. It’s all about gathering, bringing people together through the use of public art,” Fraire said. “There's no VIP section. There's no tickets being sold. It’s accessible to everybody.”

With that, often comes criticism from the community and competition for the few spaces made available for public art. UW-Madison art professor Faisal Abdu’Allah said public art can be “problematic,” especially for the artist.

“The artist must be given space,” Abdu’Allah said. “If there are too many voices in the mix, I think the artist is compromised.” 

At its most inspirational, public art can “transform the way we see ourselves,” Parks Snider said. It has the ability to agitate, inform and educate and in that way, is comparable to activism, she said.

As an artist and activist, Parks Snider said there is a tension between allowing interpretation by her audience but also delivering an intentional message.

“Art has this magic ability of connecting people to these ideas in ways that preaching at people, yelling at people, it just doesn’t connect you,” Parks Snider said.

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Panelists disagreed over who should be making public art for Madison. Fraire wants to prioritize local artists because money spent on the project stays in the community, while Abdu’Allah said quality is the most important.

“Whether they’re from the community, I don’t care. Whether they’re from space, I don’t care, as long as they can provide the best visual experience for Madison," Abdu’Allah said. 

City of Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf said the city tries to balance artwork from local and outside artists, however, Madison artists have a slight edge because they instinctively understand the local spaces.

“Good public art is very responsive to the site that it’s in, and nobody knows our community better than those in the community,” Wolf said.

Public art can also respond to the values of a community. Milwaukee artist Ray Chi is creating a piece based on talks with Emerson East neighbors for Pennsylvania Park at Johnson and First streets using the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘ours’ to symbolize inclusion.  

“Madison has got some good values, and they express it through their public art,” Wolf said.

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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.