En route to the newest Art in Place installation, I watch a motorcyclist rip through a crosswalk. An angry truck driver breaks hard and then floors it. A pedestrian stops short and flips him the bird.
As I approach Schenks Branch on McIntire Road, the mood changes. Alan Binstock carefully assembles his work, a glass and resin shield mounted on steel. A grinning crowd watches: Elizabeth Breeden, the director of Art in Place, Kenny, the crane operator, and a dozen of Binstock’s jubilant friends. When I cross the road without accident, they cheer.
Binstock’s “Io” is one of 10 new sculptures gracing the streets of Charlottesville. Chosen by the of Art in Place board, which aims “to make art accessible to the general public,” and a jury of artists, professors, and gallery owners, these public art works will remain on display until September 2013, when a new wave of art will appear.
Every year, sculptures are installed in areas of high vehicular traffic. Placement depends on what car speed and backdrop will allow drivers to best “read” the work. “People can see the same piece twice a day, but it’s a peripheral view,” Breeden said. “Public art encourages looking—at the trees and the grass as well as the piece.”
The term “drive-by art” may sound dismissive, but the concept encourages subtle, long-term consideration. “I tell people, ‘Live with it and then decide,’” said Breeden. “Visual art is not about words; it’s about heart and eyes. Sometimes hating the work is as important as loving it.”
Elizabeth Breeden understands art appreciation. For 32 years, she hosted Wednesday night suppers at her home in Biscuit Run, open houses modeled after ateliers that featured sculpture by artists like her husband, David. At a 2001 dinner, Breeden and friends Blake and Charlie Hurt decided to put art on the streets. They designed a program with expert board members, including Satyendra Huja, their first director of development, who guided them through municipal complexities. City Council approved it and initial funding came from the now-defunct Percent for Art program, which paid for pedestal installation, sculpture insurance, and small artist stipends.
During the project’s first four years, city residents were outraged. “Sculpture intrudes a little more than paintings do,” Breeden shrugged. “People thought they were forced to love it. When they realized the installations were temporary, the questions shifted from ‘What are you doing?’ to ‘Am I moved?’”
Over the last 11 years, Art in Place has installed more than a hundred sculptures. Charlottesville Parks and Recreation department, which maintains the installations, tends to receive positive feedback about simple, playful works. A giant stone butterfly, a cloud of birds and a polar bear are three of seven well-loved works purchased by the city for permanent display.
The 2012-13 collection includes artists from across the country, but two are relatively close to home: Louisa’s John Anderson, a chainsaw artist whose “Louisa Lions” are made of white oak, and Tomas Fernandez from Rochelle, Virginia, who calls his aluminum horse “Faithful and True.” Several sculptures are more than 10′ tall, including Mark Connelly’s “An Scealai (The Storyteller),” inspired by “standing stones found throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom,” and Hanna Jubran’s “Fall and Winter,” abstract columns with forms that “represent the mountains, horizon and clouds.” At 15′, Mike Sohikian’s “Triomphe,” a pillar in which a man with upraised arms appears in negative space, is the tallest they’ve ever erected. Equally eye-catching are the archways—Jim Gallucci’s “Symphonic Gate,” a steel gate surrounding a giant treble clef, and Adam Wall’s “Structure,” a comment on “true building blocks” that appears as an atom beneath an arch.
On McIntire, I learn about “Io” from Alan Binstock’s friends. “It’s earth, water and fire. He named it after a moon.” As they take photos and pour sparkling apple juice, I consider Breeden’s theory that public art is actually about the artists themselves. “We’re interested in celebrities’ personal lives, and these sculptures are really self-concepts. This is the art of our era.”
I finish my juice and say my good-byes. In coming days, drivers will notice this place, and they’ll start to see more than the road and the traffic. Thus assured, I look both ways and stroll across the street.
Artist statements and photos of the entire collection can be found at www.artin place.org. —Elizabeth Derby
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