The idea of bringing public artwork to East Ninth Street is not dead, but time is running out if the art is going to be incorporated into the city’s design to reconstruct the roadway.
The City Commission has approved funding for the street reconstruction, and plans are underway for the project to begin in the spring. Porter Arneill, the city’s director of communications and creative resources, said the further along the design process is, the harder it will be to integrate more complicated art.
“There’s ways of doing some things to accommodate some artworks, but the opportunity to be fully integrated is waning quickly,” Arneill said.
The city’s street project will reconstruct East Ninth Street from New Hampshire Street to Pennsylvania Street, including sidewalks, lighting and storm sewers. A final design for the street project is forthcoming, but whether permanent public art will even be proposed is still unknown.
A new work group
The Lawrence Arts Center is leading the art portion of the street project, and a proposal made in July planned for the design process to begin this month. But Interim Arts Center CEO Cindy Maude said that is not yet happening, and that instead the center is “taking a step back” because of feedback from the organization funding the project and from city leaders.
The art for East Ninth is being funded by a $500,000 ArtPlace America grant, and Maude said ArtPlace accepted the proposal made over the summer, but with the caveat that the Arts Center work with the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association throughout the process. Maude also noted that Mayor Leslie Soden gave similar direction. Maude said the process going forward will be “more inclusive of what the East Lawrence Neighborhood is about.”
“I think the main thing is that we’re all trying to work together and utilize these funds for the good of the community, the artists in Lawrence and for the East Lawrence Neighborhood,” Maude said.
A work group composed of Maude and ELNA board members Dave Loewenstein and Josh Davis has been meeting for a couple of months and will present a preliminary proposal for the project at ELNA’s meeting on Monday. Maude provided limited specifics to the Journal-World about what will be presented and said that what they have is a broad outline with potential ideas that the neighborhood will discuss before a final proposal is created.
Since the ArtPlace grant was awarded — now 3 1/2 years ago — the artistic elements of the East Ninth Street project have been significantly scaled back. In 2015, a $3.8 million design concept by el dorado inc. was proposed that integrated artistic elements such as natural rock seating, native grass and light and sound displays. The Lawrence City Commission did not move forward with that design and subsequently denied the Art Center’s request to provide city funds toward public art, voting instead to commission another company to create the traditional street design that is now in progress.
Maude said although having permanent art in the project is definitely still an option, it is not a guarantee. She said art could include some permanent works as well as performance art or ephemeral pieces.
What is known is that there is a continued desire to involve local artists in whatever artwork is produced. Maude said the proposal calls for working with about 15 artists total and extending invitations to the five local artists previously selected as part of the original el dorado concept: Meredith Moore, Rachael Perry, Nick Carswell, Stephen T. Johnson and Zia.
Funding will also dictate what art may be created. There is about $343,000 left of the $500,000 grant, according to information Maude provided to the Journal-World. The largest expenses so far have included $50,000 toward the el dorado design, $28,125 for the project director, $21,000 for artist fees and $21,000 for artists' supplies. Other costs included accounting, administration and printing and publications.
Letting a new process unfold
Some residents in East Lawrence were originally against the el dorado project, also referred to as “the arts corridor,” because of concerns about the initial decision-making process and what effects the project might have on the neighborhood.
Loewenstein, a local muralist whose studio is on East Ninth Street, is one of the residents who spoke out against the initial iteration of the project. Loewenstein said what the new work group is trying to do with the second iteration is difficult, and he hopes it will be allowed to unfold.
“It takes some guts to do this, I think, because of all the emotions and perceptions that were generated the first time around,” Loewenstein said. “So I really appreciate that (Maude and Davis) were willing to do this.”
Loewenstein said he also appreciates that the ELNA board was willing to re-engage with the project, which he said he sees as a great first step. He said he thinks the new project is an opportunity to build trust among all involved — and also a chance to create something cool.
Even if the next proposal is too slow in coming to be integrated into the street reconstruction design, there may still be options. Though Arneill said deadlines for art proposals aren't currently set, he said simpler projects could likely be added late in the process. In addition to programmatic art or performances, Arneill said there are ways to hold space in the design for permanent artwork even if it’s not yet known what it will be.
“There are situations where it is possible to put in sort of a placeholder,” Arneill said. “In other words, identify (that) this artwork would go on this spot and perhaps pour a concrete pad or something along those lines.”
The broad proposal will be presented at ELNA's monthly meeting Monday, and the association plans to vote on a final proposal in February. Maude said the Arts Center must have the project completed and all grant funds spent before June 2020.