Public art is a great thing, right? It promotes community, encourages foot traffic, enhances a location and helps to define an area.
But what if it’s not appreciated? What if it is abused and vandalized when no one is looking? What if it is a “bother” to some?
The Piano Project in downtown Fargo has been on both sides of this issue.
Susanne Williams, executive director of The Uptown Gallery and founder of Willi Nilli, brought pianos to downtown Fargo through a public art grant funded by the city of Fargo through The Arts Partnership.
The first piano, painted with bunches of cats, sat outside The Uptown Gallery, 72 Broadway, and people immediately began to play it – young, old, good players, not-so-good players, shoppers, homeless people. Even more people stopped to enjoy the music they created.
Often, a guitar or other instrument would pop up to accompany the piano player; singers joined in on tunes they knew.
It was doing exactly what public art is supposed to do. It was engaging the community, and not just some of the community, but all of the people who encountered it.
At its core, the most important word in public art is public. When art leaves galleries, museums, theaters and concert halls to go out to the public, it removes all stigma or barriers to anyone enjoying it. Money, clothing, experience, taste and comfort levels are irrelevant; what matters is that art is accessible and right in front of anyone who passes.
Public art invites universal participation. That’s what the Piano Project does so beautifully, and the public loves it.
Except for the few who don’t.
Shortly after its launch, someone tipped the piano over. Others removed the rain barrier so it got wet during a rainstorm. Eventually, someone totally destroyed the instrument, smashing it beyond repair.
Undeterred, Susanne got to work on another one. This one engaged the public even more because they got to paint it on a lovely Thursday evening during a Corks and Canvas event.
It wasn’t totally destroyed, but a mere two hours after it was put out, a man came along and pulled off the music holder. The police got involved at that point.
Then came the Game Day piano. That, too, was vandalized: Five of the black keys were pulled off, and three of the hammers were broken off inside. Still outside, it is waiting for a repairman to bring it back to full playability.
What does all this say? Can we blame alcohol or mental illness or a blatant lack of respect for this persistent destruction? Can we pass it off as youthful hi-jinks?
I don’t think so.
I’m not saying all those things are not possibilities, but there’s a bigger issue at hand.
Are we going to be a community that embraces public art and works to manage all the possible pitfalls that come with it, or are we going to be a community that enjoys it when it’s convenient and ignores it when it’s not?
The conversations going on at many levels, from City Hall to the arts community, are calling for more public art. Hopefully, these pianos are just the beginning. But what is the point if it’s all going to be vandalized?
What is the point of putting up artful bike racks, wrapping a city bus and creating a monthlong Beethoven festival, which are this year’s public art projects funded by the city, if the general public is not going to make sure that a few don’t ruin the experience for the many?
Yes, we can get more security cameras, and that is being discussed by the appropriate organizations, but the safety of public art is not just a police issue. What is the public going to do to make sure our public art stays safe? That it’s available for everyone?
If you have enjoyed The Piano Project, if you are excited about the forward momentum by our city to bring more public art to the community, then you have to also take some responsibility for it.
If you see someone inappropriately handling the pianos or the painted bison, who have also had more than their fair share of abuse over the years, step in and stop them. Or if you don’t feel safe doing it yourself, call the police.
The success and continuation of public art in our city depends on everyone. We need to foster a sense of pride and respect for public art so no one looks the other way if someone is mistreating a piece of it.
We must be so clear that vandalism is not an acceptable act in any circumstance that it is no longer an issue that even needs to be discussed.
Public art requires the public to enjoy it, utilize it, respect it, value it and keep it safe. Only when we are doing all these things will we be the kind of city we claim we want to be; the kind of city we absolutely are becoming and can be, but it depends on you.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and originally appeared in the Monday, September 29, 2014 issue of the paper
Photo courtesy The Piano Project.