East Ninth Project’s advisory committee discusses proposed ‘associate artist’ program

The East Ninth Project’s citizen advisory committee unveiled a draft for an RFQ — or, simply put, a request of qualifications for prospective artists — and introduced the idea of a second RFQ during a meeting Wednesday night at City Hall.

The goal of the project is to refurbish the stretch of Ninth Street from Massachusetts Street to Delaware Street, integrating public artwork along the seven blocks in East Lawrence.

Porter Arneill, the city’s new director of arts and culture, produced the initial RFQ with Josh Shelton of the project’s design team and lead artists Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc of the art collective Sans façon.

It outlines the East Ninth Project’s three largest commission opportunities while laying out the criteria that the selection jury will consider.

Arneill on Wednesday said he was “cautious” about including too many restrictions to the RFQ; instead, he says, it’s merely an invitation for artists to apply to the project — it’s not a contract, he told the committee.

Tuesday night, city commissioners reviewed a suggestion from a group of East Lawrence residents and other community members that at least 50 percent of the public artwork for the project would be commissioned to Lawrence artists, and that half of that half reside in East Lawrence.

Those concerns were partly addressed Wednesday in a recommendation from some members of the Citizen Advisory Committee to draft a second RFQ calling for “associates” (the original wording used was “apprentices”) to assist or collaborate with artists on the projects outlined in the first RFQ.

While the first RFQ would be open to artists outside of Lawrence, it was suggested that the second RFQ be open only to Douglas County residents to ensure local artists’ involvement in the project. Not all committee members were pleased with the proposal, however.

Artist and East Lawrence Neighborhood Association representative John Sebelius expressed some trepidation about releasing two separate RFQs, arguing that it implied that local artists weren’t qualified enough to lead the projects themselves.

“I think the idea of two calls minimizes local talent in that way, to think we can’t (compete) against regional people or national people,” Sebelius said. “I think it is a prized position, and I do think Josh (Shelton) and Sans façon have been more than open about the fact that they want Lawrence people to apply.”

But fellow artist Dave Loewenstein, also representing the ELNA, praised the action.

Comparing the “associate” program to a local farmers’ market, he likened the artists to farmers and farm hands.

“Our farmers market is amazing, and to sell at the farmers market, you got to be local. What that means is, maybe the best strawberry in the country can’t be sold at the farmers market and that also means that pineapples can’t be sold either,” Lowenstein said. “But we’ve made that choice because we value our local food economy, and we value local farmers in a very intimate and meaningful way.”

“We’ve got the farm hands,” Loewenstein said. “Now we just need a few farmers.”