How Public Art Animates a City



Massachusetts public artist Caroline Aragon’s High Tide is an abstract marsh landscape that is installed on the Greenway.

How Public Art Animates a City






Greenway Public Art Curator Lucas Cowan envisions the Greenway as “a constantly changing canvas.”




A boy poses for a photo in front of Monkey See in Chinatown Park.




Public Trust attracted those passing through Dudley Square to make promises, which then were written down and mounted on a large marquee.




Now and There brought the public art project Public Trust, by Brooklyn artist Paul Ramirez Jones (on right) to Boston’s Dudley Square with program support from Lewis Family Foundation and operating support from the Boston Foundation..

From April to late October of 2016, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a key leader in Boston’s public art space, presented Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, by the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. This tour de force of public art was installed around the Rings Fountain in Boston’s Wharf District. Twelve monumental bronze animal heads represented the signs of the Chinese zodiac. Their stay in Boston was part of a global, multi-year exhibit.

In a similar vein, Monkey See, a sculpture by New Mexico artist Don Kennell, is enhancing Chinatown Park in honor of the Year of the Monkey. Both works represent one goal of the Greenway’s Public Art Curator Lucas Cowan, which is to engage with nearby neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, with pieces that directly correlate with the culture and traditions of the communities.

“Our other goal is to elevate the work of Boston-area artists,” says Cowan, who has put out a request for proposals from locally-based Massachusetts artists. Cowan moved here from Chicago as part of a wave of talented arts professionals, including Julie Burros, the City’s Chief of Arts and Culture and the Foundation’s own Director of Arts and Culture Allyson Esposito. They all are excited to be here. Along with the City, funders, arts organizations, artists and, most important, those who live in Boston’s neighborhoods, they envision a Boston that is infused with art and where art is at the heart of the city’s contemporary identity. “Boston is a marvelous city full of history,” says Cowan, “but it’s been about 30 years behind a number of other cities, like Philadelphia and Chicago, when it comes to contemporary public art.”

Boston is also one of the most walk-able cities in America and high-quality public art can enhance and animate not only our iconic public spaces, but every neighborhood in the city. Since 2014, the Boston Foundation and its donors have made $300,000 in grants to the Greenway to support its public art projects. The Foundation is also currently providing support to organizations that present contemporary, temporary, place-based art.

One example of the latter is Now and There, a nonprofit organization that creates temporary, site-specific public art projects. In August of 2016, a powerful, provocative traveling exhibit came to Dudley Square in Roxbury, near the Dudley branch of the Boston Public Library. Created by Brooklyn artist Paul Ramirez Jones, Public Trust is an interactive artwork that asks passersby to make a “promise,” a kind of contract with themselves and others.

The promises are then mounted on a large marquee, the words made up of letter tiles reminiscent of a retro news ticker, spelling out the promises made by world leaders as well as the promises of participants. Some of the 100 promises made on just one day by various people included: I promise to make my daughter proud. Listen more and eat healthier. Be a more loving father. Not be hard on myself. Not let anyone steal my sparkle and shine.

“We wanted to have a conversation about words and why they matter, especially during a time when politicians were making so many promises to America,” says Kate Gilbert, who directs Now and There. “It’s not easy to give a promise. A lot of people say ‘No thank you, I’ve made too many promises I’ve broken.’ But so many do decide to participate.” There are a few promises that have touched Gilbert the most. “For instance, there was Darryl,” she explains, “who talked about broken promises and then promised to change his attitude. Another was Kai, a 16 year-old girl who came to the library with her grandfather to get a book. She loved being out there with us and her promise was, ‘I promise to make sure black lives matter’.”


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