The Long View

Public art

Our community brand for a creative future

By Jim Sparrow
I have written many columns encouraging the rediscovery of Fort Wayne’s and the Midwest’s history as innovator and national barometer. There have also been columns encouraging the community to embrace the next step of discovery and entrepreneurism as a means of being recognized nationally as a best-kept secret and as an example of sustainable change. Through all of these columns there was sincere optimism that we were either on the verge of a tipping point or in the early stages of one. I now have more than optimism that we are in the midst of this sea change.

The development of downtown attractions, housing, activity and access such as bike lanes and new community festivals have been great steps, but with the recent announcement of IPFW’s Sculpture with Purpose project the feeling that transformation was happening hit me. The project is a highlight of how Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne is choosing to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a permanent enhancement —  of 50 bike-racks-as-art — to the city’s visual landscape and to how we welcome alternative modes of transportation. As I participated in the public announcement press conference for this project, I realized the depth and diversity of community partners who were not only interested but actively helping and supporting. My other epiphany was that by the time I reached the microphone to give the Public Art perspective, it had already been done multiple times. The realization that we were embracing a project that would change our look, feel and perception of ourselves as a community was exhilarating.

I don’t think that public art changes the world, but I do think that steps that elevate our thinking about community interaction, experience and how others outside of our city see us are the validating steps that we are moving. As an example, I am sure each of you remembers the transition from high school adolescence to college or independence. Just as in a John Hughes movie from the ’80s there is a point where the hero or heroine decides it is more important to follow their own path and lead than to be part of the pack. We can all remember when we came into our own and developed our own style, likes, interests and, more importantly, embraced those as who we were and are. We worried less about being hip than acting independently and in doing so took the real steps towards being cool, independent or not caring about what others thought and in doing so became the trend setter. Fort Wayne is taking those steps, and we are on our way to being cool, not in a contrived way, but by embracing who we are and taking steps to embrace our future confidently.

Public Art has been talked about as a necessary step for years. Ironically Allen County has the second-largest collection of Public Art pieces next to only Marion County. I think many of us would have expected that Indianapolis had the most, but instead of us being second we might think of Columbus or Lafayette or Bloomington. Each of these communities has that perception because they have branded themselves in that way. We have hidden many of our pieces, much like an adolescent boy who likes a girl but spends more time convincing others he doesn’t like her to avoid the embarrassment of embracing mature feelings and their consequences.

This Sculpture with Purpose project is more than just an anniversary celebration for IPFW or a temporary dalliance in our downtown experience. This project lays the groundwork for public expression, art and active downtown living. It sets precedent and examples of how we move ahead and possibly lays the ground work for greater displays of expression. It would not shock me at all to see us planning for the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap parts of downtown in bright cloth like their projects in other cities or to look at a large project such as the large blue bear in Denver or the spoon and cherry in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Don’t laugh because it won’t matter. Cool and confident cites set trends; they don’t acquiesce or take a poll before setting the path for their future. As John Hughes’ character Ferris Bueller would say, “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Keep your eyes open, Fort Wayne.

Jim Sparrow

Jim Sparrow is executive director of Arts United, the third-oldest united arts fund in the United States and the second largest arts council in Indiana.

Posted: Mon, 07/02/2012 - 11:54 am
Last updated: Thu, 08/30/2012 - 11:37 am