Public Art Opportunity for Lowell

City Councilor Dan Rourke is urging the City Manager to pursue funding for a new public art initiative in Lowell. Blogger Gerry Nutter wrote about this effort and cited the facts behind the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge for Cities:

Bloomberg Philanthropies is launching a new program to support temporary public art projects that engage communities, enhance creativity and enrich the vibrancy of cities. Bloomberg Philanthropies is inviting mayors in cities with 30,000 residents or more to submit proposals for innovative temporary public art projects that demonstrate close collaboration between artists, or arts organizations and city government. At least three cities will be selected to receive up to $1 million each over two years.

Lowell had a strong run in the public art area in the 1980s and ’90s, led by Paul Tsongas. There are nine monumental outdoor sculptures from that era whose acquisition price was about $1 million. The group is called the Lowell Public Art Collection. A bit later came Mico Kaufman’s bronze tribute to James McNeill Whistler near his birthplace on Worthen St. We see these ten artworks every day in the downtown historic district. I wrote about the public art campaign of that period in my book Mill Power. Here’s an excerpt:

Sculpture Trail

    Lowell was such a hotspot in the field of outdoor sculpture or public art in 1988 that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art invited the local art community to be a satellite location for activities linked to an ambitious two-country art exhibition, “The BiNational: German Art of the ‘80s.” The curators aimed to provide a platform “to examine important trends emerging in contemporary art in Germany and the United States.” Lowell was asked to host artist Bruno K., of Berlin. He proposed an industrial-type assemblage made of heavy-duty construction materials like steel ventilation tubes to be mounted on exposed beams in the archway outside the Brush Gallery at Market Mills. In the Gallery he would display a number of his recent works, including inventive vehicles and sculpture made of found objects. With the approval of the National Park Service, Bruno K. installed his sculpture in December, where it remained for more than a month. Related activities included a talk by the artist at the then-University of Lowell Art Department. A capacity crowd turned out for the exhibit opening at the Brush. Bruno K. described his approach:

“I’ve been working on the same theme for years … concerned with power, domination, heroism, and the products of our ancestors, such as trophies, medals, and victorious poses. . . . I’ve never sought out this theme, let along thought of it. It’s far too much an integral part of me. In my parents’ home, for example, war was always an important theme. … And certain patterns of thought and behavior from our grandfathers’ generation have contributed to the present-day situation.”

How did Lowell get to the front of the line in the public-art niche of contemporary sculpture? The city at the time had a modest collection of statuary and monuments, mostly war memorials and ethnic heritage markers, but few new works of art had been commissioned and installed between World War II and the 1980s. There had been a flurry of mural-making in the 1970s with Lowell artists Janet Lambert-Moore and Leo Panas leading teams of young people in summer jobs projects funded by the Neighborhood Youth Corps of Community Teamwork Inc. City history- and ethnic heritage-themed murals were painted on several building walls and a municipal parking garage. There were French-Canadian, Irish, Greek, and Portuguese tableaux. The parking garage that pre-dated the current one on John Street featured a long upper-deck wrap-around narrative painting about the city’s industrial past, from slave ships tied to cotton growing in the South to twentieth-century strike banners carried by mill workers.

Pat Mogan in 1972 had circled the topic “Works of Art in Public Spaces” in his National Endowment for the Arts  program brochure, wondering if this was worth following up on. He often talked with local artists such as Richard Marion and Jeannine Tardiff about identifying motifs associated with Lowell, like the fishing shack in Rockport, Mass., that has launched a million watercolor paintings. His first impulse always was to work with community artists, but he thought motifs like Pawtucket Falls or the Boott Mills clock-and-bell tower could draw artists from all over and result in Lowell images being as familiar as iconic as the Gloucester, Mass., fisherman on the waterfront or Paul Revere on his bronze horse in the North End of Boston.

The idea for new large-scale outdoor sculpture in the historic district downtown, however, came from Paul Tsongas. Having lived and worked around Washington, D.C., for many years, he admired the profound national monuments and lively street sculpture in the capital city. He noticed how much his young daughters enjoyed seeing and engaging with artworks. Lowell could benefit from a little of this, he decided. Tsongas had good instincts on the cultural side, but he was the first to admit he had a lot to learn about contemporary art. He was as serious about culture as he was about energy and economics. In May 1984, Executive Director Fred Faust of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission introduced him to the Commission’s new cultural affairs director. Tsongas fixed his eyes on me: “Are you taking my job? Don’t screw up.”—and then he grinned.

. . . .

—Paul Marion, 2014