Transforming a Neighborhood Near You

How Austin's Art in Public Places program changes spaces and lives

Art in Public Places Administrator Martha Peters
Art in Public Places Administrator Martha Peters (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

The wall is blank, but not for long. This happens to walls sometimes. They start their lives humbly, purely functional, until someone singles them out. The city, a neighborhood association, an artist. And then everything changes for that wall. The wall becomes a monument of sorts, part of the skyline, another broad brushstroke in the city's character. One afternoon in the future, you will be able to drive down East Seventh and see this wall I'm talking about -- right in front of Huston-Tillotson College, across the street from Planned Parenthood and Church's Chicken. You can see it and enjoy it or abhor it or feel something, anything, but for now it is just a blank cement wall. A block-long stretch of blah. And everybody has a different idea for it.

"We'd like to see something honoring music legends of the Eastside," announce the council members backing the project.

"This is our campus," says a Huston-Tillotson alum, standing at the microphone. "I am really concerned that you incorporate ideas from Huston-Tillotson."

That sparks something in the front row. "I fear this is going to be a politically correct wall," the man says. "What about a wall that was just pretty?"

"Or just leave it alone," says the alum.

Martha Peters is here to help. On a Monday evening at Huston-Tillotson, she stands before a crowd of 23 people who have met to discuss the wall's future and flips through slides of inspired art projects from other cities. The examples illustrate the infinite variety of ways to transform a cement wall; the tricky part is just deciding which one. As the administrator for Austin's Art in Public Places program, Peters knows the delicate dance of diplomacy that public art requires. If art in a gallery is about a fiercely singular vision, then public art is all about compromise. How to please the city, the artist, and perhaps most challenging of all, the people who live with it.

Another alumna walks to the microphone. She is the kind of woman you watch your manners around. "Those slides are beautiful," she says, "but it doesn't fit us." She has spent most of the meeting whispering with other alumni, clicking their tongues in disapproval. Now it is their turn, and each takes the microphone to say, in her own respectful and emphatic way, the same thing: They want this project to represent them.

Also, they have a few suggestions of their own.

"How about a wall of bluebonnets?" the woman at the microphone is saying. "Something elegant. You know, shrubbery all around it, flowers dripping down the side. Now, my idea may not be democratic," she begins. This time Martha Peters interrupts her. "That's rule No. 1 of public art. You can't please everybody."

Martha Peters never mentioned rule No. 2, but it might be this: Public art is not necessarily a mural, and public art is not necessarily a statue. Murals peel and crack, fall prey to graffiti. And though Art in Public Places has helped place some of the city's most famous bronze likenesses -- Ralph Helmick's Stevie Ray Vaughan statue on Town Lake, Glenna Goodacre's Philosopher's Rock at the entrance to Barton Springs Pool -- that is only a sliver of what it has contributed to the city. Since the program's inception in 1985, AIPP has placed more than 100 works of art in 57 facilities. Saying public art is just murals and statues is like saying every poem has to rhyme.

So what do we talk about when we talk about public art? Well, we talk about tile mosaic floors in the new Palmer Events Center or the fantastical, elaborate exploratorium that will be the Town Lake Children's Garden (see sidebar). We talk about a simple, elegant memorial at a police station in South Austin (Linnea Glatt's Reflect) or lush oil paintings of local parks hanging alongside the airport's ugliest of inevitables, the security check-in (Jimmy Jalapeeno's "Green Austin" series). Public art can be poetic and political, such as Tre Arenz's award-winning Wall of Hands at the St. Elmo Service Center, which turned a contested power plant retaining wall into a statement of solidarity: 260 hand imprints from people in the neighborhood, each in a glazed ceramic tile stacked upon the other. But public art must be practical. It must meet certain limitations of scope and time, must meet the demands of the community, the government, the space, the architect. It has to work.

Public art is also on a budget. Until recently, AIPP received 1% of the total cost for capital improvement projects -- "1% for Soul," Rebecca Cohen termed it in her 1997 Chronicle article about AIPP. The limitations required ingenuity; Tre Arenz had a mere $15,000 to transform the St. Elmo Service Center wall. But AIPP was further saddled with a $200,000 cap -- the only such program out of 200 nationwide with such a limit -- so that when it placed art in Austin-Bergstrom International, for example, it received around $600,000 less than the allotted 1% of the airport's budget.

Austin was behind. Thankfully, that changed.

Last September, the Austin City Council nixed the cap and effectively doubled AIPP's funding, increasing the percentage for art on capital improvement projects to 2%. The change paves the way not only for bigger projects with nationally recognized names, but also for more professional development among local artists and the opportunity to work on streetscapes, like the intersection of Sixth and Lamar. It was a vote of confidence for the program as well as the woman running it. That was echoed in October, when the Texas Society of Architects recognized Art in Public Places for contributions to the improvement of the built environment in Texas.

"The main reason AIPP is such a successful program is because of Martha Peters," says Arenz. "Not only is she respected in this community, but around the country in public art circles."

And that's why when we talk about public art in Austin, we talk about Martha Peters.

Peters has run the Art in Public Places program for 11 years. "You could have never told me I'd be in it so long," she says. Peters earned her degree in studio art at UT and had only aspirations to starving artistry when her professor Steve Daly first spied her untapped talent during a sculpture project on Town Lake.

"He said to me, 'Martha you'd make a great arts administrator,'" she says, "and I took it as an insult because I wanted to be an artist." She is an accomplished black-and-white landscape photographer ("as much as anyone with a full-time job and a two-year-old can be"), but these days her main vocation is being an arts administrator par excellence, one of those rare beings who understands aesthetic, civic, and commercial concerns. She holds hands, she navigates mazes, she acts as interpreter between the city and the artist.

"She's brilliant," says artist Beverly Penn, who has worked with Peters on the St. Johns Community Center/J.J. Pickle Elementary School and the upcoming Town Lake Children's Garden. "And she works very hard for the artist. I've worked in other public art situations, and that's not always the case."

Peters shares a vibrantly cluttered office in the Dougherty Arts Center with the other two AIPP employees, Megan Weiler and Jean Graham, who describe Peters in the same way: grace under pressure. Says Graham, who spent a decade organizing exhibitions for the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria before taking a part-time position at AIPP, "[Martha]'s comfortable writing a budget and finessing a legal contract, speaking to a neighborhood group or City Council, reading a blueprint and putting on a hardhat and heading out to the construction site."

On the morning I visit, Peters attends a meeting to discuss a city park the renovations for which will not be completed until 2005. Until that time, AIPP will work with the city -- and eventually a landscape architect and an artist -- to place public art in that park. It's a young project. When Julie Lipton, with the Parks Department, rolls out the design sketch, Peters leans her elbows on the table and puts on her glasses.

"I want the art to be reflective of the area," says Lipton. "The birds, the water, the history."

"Without being didactic," Peters says. "Like you don't want a plain old sign with bird types on it. This might be the kind of project we get a historian on, comb through the archives, work with the artist."

Beverly Penn and Steve Wiman, The Threshold Project
Beverly Penn and Steve Wiman, The Threshold Project

Peters aims toward this kind of artful context, something that is instructive or beautiful, but also integrated with its surroundings. Otherwise it's just "plop art," which is just what it sounds like: art that can be plopped anywhere. "If you look at the Capitol grounds," Peters explains, "you see a lot of sculptures. They're nice pieces, but you could stick them anywhere." Compare that to something like the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial at Town Lake. "Even though it's traditional sculpture, it's got a connection to the place. He played on Auditorium Shores."

Peters considers these early meetings between key players crucial to the creation of good public art. When everyone is on the same page, explains Penn, "there's this wonderful opportunity for the art and the architecture to be kind of seamless, and that not only works well for the artist and the architect, but it stretches the dollar. You don't have to retrofit anything."

Later that day, Peters visits a nearly completed site. At any given time, AIPP juggles between 15 and 20 projects. This one, a mosaic tile gazebo in Springdale Park, has had its progress stunted by rain. Today the sun is shining, and as it threads through the trees, shafts of light slice across the columns, making the copper pieces glisten.

Martha Peters isn't watching; she's standing in mud.

"We're having a little scaffolding crisis here," she jokes, her heels squishing a bit as she helps San Antonio artist Twyla Arthur wedge slabs of wood underneath the rusty metal contraption. Once it is balanced, Peters steps back and dusts off her hands. She wears a lovely red knit sweater set.

Peters walks inside the gazebo and excitedly points out key design elements. The materials are earthy (black Mexican pebbles, rocks, and tile), inspired by African mud houses and designed with children in mind. Can you find the objects hidden in the mosaic? "If you stand back, you can see a vine runs along here," she says, "and over here, a lizard."

Twyla Arthur hops down from the scaffolding. "It's like jungle animals," she says, wiping her brow of sweat. "You see 'em but you don't." Arthur whacks a piece of tile with a hammer. She picks up one sliver and smears wet cement on it like thick icing. It reminds Peters of the time Arthur was completing a mosaic floor for the Palmer Events Center. Watching her at work, one man said, "Whoa. These are women who are not afraid to use power tools."

While Arthur pieced together the gazebo, children at Springdale Elementary across the street created mosaics of their own, which will be used to cover the cement chairs and benches in the park. It is a case of artist and community working side by side, literally.

"With every project," Peters says, "we ask, 'How can an artist impact this facility?' That's part of the purpose of the program, to let the artist have an impact."

It is time for the public-art pièce de résistance. Like many success stories, it begins with strife. When the city tore down 35 houses in the St. John's neighborhood to build a new elementary school and community center, longtime residents were displaced, history was bulldozed. Inspired by their ache, Penn and fellow artist Steve Wiman collaborated on the Community Core Sample Project and the Threshold Project, commemorating the history both lost and found: 35 oblong glass cases lining the walls, filled with objects from the neighborhood; 35 marble "thresholds," each engraved with an address, placed in the floor in the exact location where a front door once stood. As one school employee says, "They created a living museum of our history." It represents the first-ever collaboration between a public works project and an ISD, and the results are extraordinary. Not only the art, but the building itself, designed by TeamHaas, which recently nabbed a 2002 AIA Austin Design award for its work on the school.

"My sister got mad when she saw it because she says elementary schools aren't supposed to be bigger than her high school," says Mercedes. Her classmate Christian laughs.

These are our tour guides. Both 10 years old, both fifth-graders at J.J. Pickle Elementary. (They want to point out, by the way, that pickles are not part of the curriculum, although scratch-and-sniff stickers are available.) Mercedes and Christian are here to show us the art in their school, the art they pass in the hallways every day at school, and they start with the glass cases, often called "niches," although they call them "art thingies."

"I like Pencils," Mercedes says, referring to a layered collage of everyday items, including one row thick with pencils, which she always tries to count.

"I like the American flag," says Christian. "It's got, like, doors painted like stripes in red and white."

We pass a glass case with old photographs etched onto copper, and a glass case layered with dirt samples from the area, various colors and textures, which some teachers have been using in their science lessons. We pass a wooden bat hanging elegantly above a litter of baseballs.

"I think this one is my cousin's," says Christian, pointing to a signed ball.

We pass glass cases with front doors, backyard trinkets, even a slice of a wavy slide, green with age.

"That's the slide from the old playground," says Mercedes. "My daddy said it's been there for a long time because he used that slide when he was a baby."

And at the end of one hallway we find something else. It is a marble rectangle in the floor, carved with an address. "I think it's where a house used to be," says Christian. "So they could remember them." Lately, some students have been making charcoal etchings of the addresses for class. It's part of a unit on maps and topography, how two dimensions can represent three dimensions, how a symbol stands for something more.

"A lot of time public art becomes almost an ornament that doesn't get looked at," says Penn. "What we've discovered is that people -- not only the children but the community -- interact with [the project] on a pretty regular basis. It means something to them. For an artist, that's the best thing that could ever happen."

These days, it's hard to find anyone saying anything bad about the project. Texas Architect recently gushed, "Not only have they achieved a community focus unlike any other in Austin, they also have retained and celebrated the heart of their neighborhood."

But it wasn't always like that. Martha Peters remembers the early community meetings, bristling with skepticism, when even the neighborhood association president admitted she wasn't sure how two white artists could represent her community. At the meeting when they displayed the first glass cases, Peters remembers one older man in back, quiet and frowning. She kept her eye on him, braced for criticism.

At the end, he approached her to tell her he loved it. "This really represents us," he said.

Which reminds us of that blank wall outside Huston-Tillotson. What's going to become of that? Eventually, something will be there. But before that can happen, many hoops have to be jumped through. Panels must be created, a call for entries made, an artist selected, meetings attended, compromises met, hands held, late hours clocked. And you can bet Martha Peters will be there to help.

"She works harder than anyone I know," says Penn.

She has reason to. There are a lot of blank walls in the city. end story

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