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?
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.
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.