Cultural Warrior: Matthew Lennon

Matthew Lennon with Ai Weiwei’s installation of “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Head.

HAA’s Director of Civic Art & Design

With Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” guarding Mc-Govern Lake at Hermann Park, now seemed like the ideal time dig deeper into ideas surrounding public art in Houston. A+C editor Nancy Wozny chatted with Matthew Lennon, Hous­ton Arts Alliance’s director of Civic Art & Design.

A+C: The days of “plop and drop” are clearly over. How would you describe the current thinking?

MATTHEW LENNON: In the past, the push had been to respond to archi­tecture. The result was a lot of “plop” and what the artist Shelia Klein called “Jumbo Jewelry.” A lot of this was to cover up the banality of the architecture. Today, it’s about creative place-making, celebrating human and municipal aspi­rations and providing platforms for cul­ture, that helps define our civic spaces in terms of use. This goes beyond art and architecture. It’s about the actions we take in creating a good place to live. We still want to build a substantial munici­pal collection. To do that, we have to be strategic and opportunistic. The main objective is to avoid CRAP (Culturally Regurgitated Artistic Plonk).

A+C: I’m all for avoiding CRAP. Let’s jump in with how that current thinking is manifesting itself in Houston.

MATTHEW LENNON: The prevailing statement I hear seems to be that “Houston is poised to be an important 21st Century city.” Hate that, sounds submissive, like we’re waiting for permission. Do we really need another decade of convening to solve our urban design problems, to understand the val­ue of artistic interventions to Houston’s quality of life?

A+C: So, what should we do?

MATTHEW LENNON: Houston is heaving with energetic, in­novative, entrepreneurial people. And the point of creative place-making is to bring the diversity of the cultural sec­tors together-tech, art, design, business, transportation, science…and act. We can’t afford to be passive.  Imagine a city that embraces its own aspirations and fosters an environment that welcomes its creative citizens and their work, where culture and partici­pation are virile. Imagine art that isn’t decorative or an object but engaging, interactive or coded to be global.

Civic Art needs to partner with the busi­ness sector and neighborhood develop­ment and management organizations. Economic development and cultural sustainability need to be married. Smart cities partner with their artists and de­signers to facilitate designs that are about civic participation.

A+C: Cities were often known by some land­mark sculpture, and those days are shifting too. That said, is there one piece that imbues a sense of the city’s identity?

MATTHEW LENNON: I don’t think Houston needs an identity. It’s a young city. It’s evolving. It’s a city of risks. I’d like Houston to be known as the place to go if you have an idea and want to make it happen. Recently, with the P.O.D.A. program (Portable On De­mand Art) and the Mark Dion Invasive Plant Eradication Unit, we’ve produced models of practice and partnership that I hope we can cultivate. These are models artist can sink their teeth into. Elaine Bradford’s work at Vinson Li­brary demonstrates the case for working with emerging artists and supporting the unexpected. Luca Buvoli’s “Vector HH” at Hobby Airport is another ex­ample. These works add to the experi­ence of place and the work benefits from that context. Louis Jimenez’s “Vaquero” is wildly eloquent, just as Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” is quietly profound.

The public realm should be where we reveal our time, place and the effort it takes to be here; where we acknowledge our complexities; and fuse our actions together to make the city the icon.

A+C: You mentioned that when you arrived here you thought of Houston as an in­complete city. In what way can public art complete a city?

MATTHEW LENNON: I like incompleteness. Great cities are in a constant state of reanimation; that’s what makes a place exciting and chal­lenging. It means there’s room for ex­perimentation, risk and growth.

A+C: I notice that public art people use the term “address the space.” Listening to you talk about the process makes me think it’s one of the more fun parts of your job.

MATTHEW LENNON: Placement makes all the difference when you install in a public space. Site wrong and great work can look like it could be anywhere. When you’re doing a project in the public realm you have to design in a way that is experiential and in context to place. For “Zodiac,” I placed the work at McGovern Lake, addressing the the­ater and park, allowing people several diverse sight lines and approaches. It means you can get into one of the paddle boats to engage the work.

A+C: I plan to take out a paddle boat soon. What else should we plan on ?

MATTHEW LENNON: We’re contracted with Buffalo Bayou Partnership to manage the art compo­nent of the Buffalo Bayou Park Project. Selection is complete and the artists are Ball Nogues Studio and Anthony Shu­mate. Ball Nogues will design an instal­lation for the Memorial Drive Viaduct. Anthony will work with the design team to facilitate artistic amenities through­out the park. The project will run from now into 2015.

A+C: Clearly there’s a whole set of moving parts in any public art project. More Houston artists might apply if they were better prepared. In what way is HAA helping artists figure out how to work with designers, architects and the like? How does an artist learn to talk to the concrete guy?

MATTHEW LENNON: Most artists will never work in public art. Artists working in the public realm have to box clever, collaborate and un­derstand that civic art is not a grant program. It’s a turnkey contractual situ­ation. They need to grasp the context of the city, its aspirations and complexities, help reveal contemporary issues and sometimes turn it all on its head. And do this under the pressure of construction schedules and budget limitations. There are lots of concerns beyond the art from other contractors, engineers, architects, security, and clients.

Fortunately, the city is enthusiastic for arts programming, and this ripples through every department. HAA can guide the artists through its complexi­ties, but the artist needs to build their own team of engineers, fabricators and installers. We have some new RFQ/RFPs going out, and we are going to offer a consultation day to help artists prepare their presentation packages.

Opening day of Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” at Hermann Park.

MATTHEW LENNON: Construction work is about more than just the trades. Job sites have camarade­rie and conflict and the need for collabo­ration. There’s a rhythm to a big job. If something goes wrong you can get hurt, someone can die or tens of thousands of dollars go down the drain. Construction work taught me about how things are made in ‘real world’ terms, about col­laborating, managing projects and con­tracts. Most importantly, it taught me about delivery. It made for a good ap­prenticeship in dealing with public art.

I think I became the ‘public art guy’ when I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne. I wanted to see if all the independent curating experience could translate to a municipal setting. I was hired to be the city’s public art curator. I shifted from the cultural program to the urban de­sign team. With the support of that team and its lead designer, Michael Crilly, we began instilling civic art and design as a key component of master plans, de­velopment, regeneration and municipal planning. We presented art as part of the infrastructure. And now I’m here.