If a piece of art is accessible to everyone, is it as valuable?
While Dana Hernandez’s response to the question is an adamant “yes,” many public artworks in Salt Lake City often go unnoticed — unless they're too big to miss.
It's not that there is a shortage of public art. The city’s growing collection includes more than 130 permanent artworks throughout the seven city council districts, according to saltlakepublicart.org. In fact, 18 new pieces of art were permanently installed along 300 South as part of Salt Lake’s Flying Objects public art series on April 14-15.
This marked the fifth — and final — installation of artwork for the series. Having four previous incarnations, Flying Objects has given multiple public artists the opportunity to submit work, said Hernandez, the public art program manager for the Salt Lake City Arts Council.
“I don’t think people give enough credit to the fact that (public art is) there and that the city actually financially supports and encourages this kind of a program,” she said. In recent interviews, Hernandez and two public artists detail the process of creating public art as well as the good it can bring to the community.
Commissioning public art
Hernandez’s approach to public art is an equitable one: While she strives to have art in as many places as possible, she also has to ensure that it's distributed throughout all the city districts. Commissioning art can be accomplished in a few ways, a main one through the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, a program that works to revitalize downtown Salt Lake City.
There’s also the percent-for-art ordinance that sets aside 1 percent of public building construction costs for public art. Salt Lake City established this ordinance in 1984, and percent-for-art programs are currently active in 28 states and territories, according to nasaa-arts.org.
Once the scope of a project is defined, a call for artists is issued that, depending on the budget, can extend internationally, nationally or regionally. Public artists can then submit their project proposals or portfolio work to be considered by the Salt Lake Art Design Board, a five-member committee with experience in architecture and the arts. The board welcomes feedback from all involved stakeholders when making a decision, Hernandez said. Upon selecting an artist, the committee sends its recommendation to the mayor who then gives the final approval.
“It’s really great because I think there’s a lot of diversity and variety in the type of projects we do,” Hernandez said. “We have budgets ranging from $500 to millions (of dollars), so it allows for a whole variety of artists to apply. We really try to ensure that artists working in all different media have the opportunity to apply and be selected. We need variety, and we need to provide those opportunities that allow them to express themselves in their chosen medium.”
This desire for diversity is reflected in the various art forms that permeate the city, ranging from sculpture to painting to glasswork. And while public art is designed to serve an entire community of people, it also brings great benefits to the artists behind the scenes.
“It is just so amazing that there’s a program out there for artists that maybe can’t afford to create their dreams independently,” said public artist Shelley Beishline. “Not every artist can get the funding or the backing to even start to do any of their artwork. A proposal, a committee and a set-aside budget for public art allows an artist to have a dream piece of artwork created. The program really provides something very special for so many artists.”
Check out the map below to explore the public art at TRAX stations around Salt Lake City.
Creating public art
Beishline and her husband have been involved with public art since 2009, and capturing the spirit of a place is an essential part of their work. Everything about their art — from the colors to the materials to the shapes — is tied to a specific history.
“When Rob and I approach public art, we feel like it’s a great opportunity to envision the past, the current and the future of the community. That becomes the starting point of conceptualizing an idea. And then we transform that into really crazy artistic representations,” Shelley Beishline said with a laugh.
One of the husband-and-wife team’s “crazier” representations can be found at the Millcreek Recreation Center. Titled “Milling Around,” the display showcases a purple wall decorated with 600-800 colorful Chuck Taylor shoes that form a geometric shape of a grinding mill. It's a clever blend of the history of the area with the purpose of the athletic center.
”(Shelley) had this wacky idea, and I said, ‘We can’t put shoes on the wall for art!’” Rob Beishline said. “But I put a crowbar in my mind and opened it up a little bit and thought, ‘You know, that could actually be really interesting.’ It ended up being one of my favorite pieces. Shelley is super creative. That’s my favorite thing about her — she’s like her own piece of public art.”
For the Beishlines, one of the best parts about being public artists is that no piece is the same.
“We don’t work in any specific medium,” Rob Beishline said. “We’re really designers... Every piece is personalized and specific, and I love them all.”
Creating public art is also a unique process because artists are challenged to express creativity while facing many constraints.
“Everything always has to follow city code, meaning essentially it has to be safe,” Hernandez said. “You want the work to be site-specific so that it reflects the community, but also so that it works well with its surroundings architecturally.”
With two of their pieces featured in the final Flying Objects installation, the Beishlines had to make sure their artwork would be able to withstand a variety of weather conditions. One of them, “Urban Ear,” is made of weather resistant powder-coated aluminum and stands next to Pioneer Park as a tribute to the downtown farmer’s market. The abstract sculpture of a corn ear taking flight represents “the simple beauty of farming” found in the center of urban development, Shelley Beishline said.
As an architect, Rob Beishline is used to working under strict guidelines, always keeping in mind potential situations that could either be hazardous or create distractions. Such safety standards are especially emphasized when it comes to UTA art projects. Artwork has been integrated into many TRAX stations, and riding TRAX can often be a “museum trip,” as passengers will most likely see a dozen pieces of art within a half hour, he added.
The Kimballs Lane UTA station in Draper features artwork designed by the Beishlines. The contemporary piece, titled “Sliced Eggs,” is meant to celebrate Draper’s agricultural past while simultaneously representing a look to the future, Shelley Beishline said. The artwork models the curvature of an egg but was constructed with 10-foot stainless steel plates to reflect the community becoming increasingly high-tech.
In addition to considering the history of a place, the public artists added that they also keep in mind their intended audience: members of the community.
“We think about the people who are going to experience this,” Rob Beishline said. “Are they going to have at least a basic understanding of what we’re doing and are they going to be enlightened by it? If not, how can we change it so they can?”
Hernandez mentioned that this can sometimes put additional pressure on public artists as they have to consider how future generations might perceive their work.
“Because it is in the public realm, (public art) has the opportunity to be criticized, which is fine, but I think we always have to start from a place of appreciation,” she said. “I’ve gained a lot more respect for public artists because there are a lot of hoops that they have to jump through. It’s a brain exercise to get what you’re envisioning to come to fruition under (various) restrictions.”
Hernandez hopes that members of the community will give more notice to Salt Lake City's blossoming display of public art.
“Works of art are meant to be engaged with,” she said. “I feel super grateful that our city has recognized the importance of that and what an influence it can have on citizens. Public art gives us a distinct identity, and adds a personality to our city which is unlike any other city.”