MOST MASSACHUSETTS communities use the same process to commission public art as they do to pave a sidewalk or hire a streetsweeper. They put out a call for contractors, review the bids that come in, and select one, typically the cheapest one. There is little or no public input into the process.
Lynn, with the help of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, has come up with a new approach called Lynnstallation.
The process began with two community focus groups that outlined the standards and values they wanted reflected in a piece of art: engagement, multi-generationality, education, justice, support, positivity and joy, and a colorful appearance.
The call for art was released, bringing in 46 submissions from across the country. Six artists were chosen to present more detailed proposals and paid $1,000 each to pitch their ideas. The proposals went through an internal review at the Lynn Public Arts Commission and those ideas that met all the program’s requirements were presented to the community for a vote.
“Laces of Lynn,” a proposal put forward by Richmond, Virginia-based artist Kevin Orlosky, won about 30 percent of the 212 votes and was officially approved August 3. The artwork is a tribute to Jan Ernst Matzeliger, who revolutionized the footwear industry in 1883 with a machine that mechanically shaped the upper portion of shoes.
Community involvement in the project will be ongoing. Orlosky said he will hold workshops and guide community members through a mindfulness process to help them come up with the best words to describe themselves. These words will be cut into metal tendrils, representing shoelaces that will rise to create a web tall enough for an adult to stand underneath.
Orlosky said the laces “represent the history of Lynn as a shoe Mecca” and also serve as a symbol of tying the community together.
Carolyn Cole, the former director of the Downtown Lynn Cultural District and currently the director of development at the Creative Collective, said Lynnstallation has become a template for other communities to use. “We have now established what is deemed the new regional model by the Office of the Inspector General for municipal artist collaboration and community-driven process,” she said. “And we’re still going.”
Annis Sengupta, director for arts and culture at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said Lynnstallation is the first time artists have been paid for concept development with the blessing of the Inspector General’s office. Outside of Massachusetts, she said, it’s considered best practice.
The traditional approach for selecting public art is also mainly a two-party exchange between artists and the government with no input from the public. Lynnstallation prioritizes public input and collaboration from start to finish.
Orlosky said the community engagement aspect was what initially drew him to the call for art. He specializes in finding unique and innovative ways of drawing the public into the artistic process.
“The most important part of the project is getting the community’s involvement … because it is about them and represents the people of Lynn,” he said. “The biggest, most diverse group of people we can represent, the more meaningful the sculpture will be.”
Sengupta said it is the public that gains the most from the new policy. “They now have a process in place that is run by … the government of Lynn and so they have a way to hold that body accountable for the kinds of art that is coming into the public realm,” she said.
“Laces of Lynn” is being funded by a grant from the Department of Community Development in Lynn. Unlike states like New Hampshire and Rhode Island, which designate a percentage of capital project budgets to art installation, Massachusetts does not have a percent-for-art policy. That means that communities can only commission art when they have grants, special permission to use municipal funds, or private donations.
Still, its founders believe that Lynnstallation’s framework is a viable tool for other communities. “Our real hope is that this creates a clear way for municipalities to contract with artists and commission art and bring more creativity and more art into civic life and the public realm of communities,” said Sengupta.
“If we can do it, you can do it,” said Cole.