Lowell Walks/Public Art
by Rosemary Noon
At the invitation of Dick Howe, my husband, Paul, and I led a group of 110 people on a 90-minute tour of the Lowell Public Art Collection this past Saturday morning. It was the second installment in the Lowell Walks series for the summer. The weather was perfect on an early June morning. Lowell’s brick buildings and fresh green leaves shone brightly under a blue-blue sky. The people who showed up included some friends and colleagues of ours, but mostly they were people we did not know. They were drawn downtown because they are interested in the city and were curious to hear about monumental sculptures that many of them have walked past or driven by for years. I got the sense that everyone in the group was local in orientation, even if they came from Amherst, Burlington, or Groton, Mass. There was at least one person from New Hampshire—an Acre neighborhood native. They came, I suspect, to get a new perspective on Lowell and to hear behind-the-scenes stories of fundraising, design selections, commissioning, successes, failures, and second chances from two people who worked on the projects and, as Paul said, “Lived to tell about it.”
I was excited to see people arrive by twos and fours at the National Park Service Visitor Center. By the 10 a.m. kickoff, the place was packed. Dick introduced Dave McKean, Sean Thibodeau, and Bob Forrant, all of whom will lead upcoming Saturday tours. Then we set off to talk about eight works of art commissioned and installed in downtown Lowell between 1984 and 1995. We had “voice boosters” with headset mikes and small clip-on speakers to amp up the sound. They worked perfectly and added a professional touch to the experience. Dick Howe uses the same equipment on his Lowell Cemetery tours.
The Lowell Public Art Collection made its mark in its time and still has a lot to offer us. When we were really cooking, we earned the second largest grant for public art projects that the National Endowment for the Arts had ever made. In the end, the commissioning price was $1 million for the artworks, a mix of private money and government funds. The sculptures were reported on in the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Public Art Review magazine, and other media outlets. The whole effort began with an impulse by Paul Tsongas, who started things when he was still a U.S. Senator—an impulse to bring first-class artwork to the streets of Lowell so that young people, school kids, espeically, could be inspired by strong creative statements. Paul would talk about “raising the sight-lines” of the young people and giving them the kind of art that a substantial city would have on its streets. He knew his own young daughters enjoyed so much the public sculptures and stirring monuments in Washington, D.C., where they spent a lot of time.
So, it’s been 20 years since Industry, Not Servitude by Ellen Rothenberg was installed in the form of eight sculptural components along Lucy Larcom Park. People had forgotten, if they even ever knew, that each artwork is a visual commentary on the five interpretive or story themes of Lowell National Historical Park: Labor, Capital, Technology, Waterpower, and The Industrial City. I forgot. Before the tour, I went to Lucy Larcom Park and wrote down the lines written by Sarah Bagley, editor of the pro-Labor newspaper The Voice of Industry from the 1840s. I used to know the lines by heart: “We say, stick to your text, and follow a steady path, with a determined spirit, and you will come off victorious.”
“Lowell Walks: Summer 2015” provides an opportunity for us to take another look at the city we think we know so well. It’s an experiment that will test whether or not there’s an audience in a 15-mile radius of downtown that will show up to hear stories about Lowell, either new ones or old ones that they want to hear again. It is an experiment in community-building because we walk, listen, talk, and learn from each other in the presence of like-minded (at least for the day) people. Lowell Walks tees up coversations involving people who accepted the invitation to take part and share. In each walk the context can be shifted, relatedness can be built, and surprising dialogues can ensue.
I think I had the best time of anyone last Saturday, and I’m going to be part of as many walks as I can fit into my schedule this summer. And, I know that line by Sarah Bagley again.
—Rosemary Noon (c) 2015