Public art stirs controversy in North Adams

It’s not about paint or policy; it’s about engagement

PUBLIC ART HAS BEEN KNOWN to create controversy. Usually, the aesthetics or thematic content of the artwork is what generates backlash. Diego Rivera in Detroit, Richard Serra in New York City, Jeff Koons in Paris, and lesser-known artists in lesser-known cities have faced criticism from community members over artworks that are deemed offensive or inappropriate.

In North Adams, public art is making news because murals that were recognized as being entirely appropriate were destroyed.

In May 2017, as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) was refreshing some of its long-term installations, the museum covered over 12 murals painted on columns that support the city’s Route 2 overpass. The murals, which reflected North Adams’ industrial history, were created in 2012 and 2013 by local students and several facilitators as an after-school art project. However, the museum argued that the murals themselves covered a coat of gray paint that was applied to the columns in 1998 as a visual component to Harmonic Bridge, a sound art installation in the same location.

Each project was given verbal – not written – approval by two separate mayors. It appears that museum leaders were aware of the student projects when they began, but failed to say anything to the facilitators, who were unaware of their indiscretion. After all, gray paint on gray concrete makes for a fairly inconspicuous installation element.

It can also be argued that museum leadership engaged in an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach to the Harmonic Bridge refurbishment. Both installations predate the North Adams Public Arts Commission, but current policy requires commission approval of any aesthetic alteration or enhancement of public property, and museum officials were well aware of this process. Director Joseph Thompson had presented two different public art proposals to the Public Arts Commission just days before the murals disappeared.

People were angry.

In a way, these flames have been fanned by years of accumulated angst over the city’s evolving identity. After Sprague Electric shuttered in the 1980s and thousands of residents lost their jobs, MASS MoCA ushered in a new economic solution at a desperate time. Cultural tourism provided some hope of recovery, but it also changed the social dynamics of the city. Many residents continue to struggle while visitors and newcomers reap the rewards of an intellectually stimulating yet inexpensive area.

The murals, aptly located under a bridge, became a symbolic connection between residents and visitors, creativity and industry, young and old, past and future. The community is vitriolic not simply because the murals were painted over, but because they were painted over by an institution that, whether it likes it or not, is central to these conflicts.

The debate gets political

When artworks installed on city property spur community debate, mayors tend to acquiesce to their constituents. It is less common for mayors to dig in their heels with an oppositional viewpoint. And it is rare for mayors to change public art policy in order to protect that position.

So, when North Adams’ newly elected mayor Thomas Bernard proposed sweeping changes to the Public Arts Commission ordinance last August, many local artists and cultural leaders found themselves in a sudden, confused panic.

Julia Dixon

What should not be overlooked is that he made this decision in concert with another one. Two weeks before revealing his intentions about the ordinance, he communicated via email his opposition to the restoration of the overpass murals.

Bernard’s amendments transfer the power to authorize projects from the commission to his office. They reposition the commission as simply an advisory body to the mayor. Not only does this consolidate decision-making power to one person, it provides an easy solution to public art controversies. Although the Public Arts Commission had the ability to resolve the overpass mural dilemma quickly by crafting a new contract to preserve one of the two installations on that property, the commission – by majority vote of its seven members – chose the more difficult route: discussion and compromise.

The Public Arts Commission was born out of a need for decisions about public art to be made by North Adams residents and art experts. Former mayor Richard Alcombright had involved the community in the process from the beginning, establishing a committee in 2014 to craft ordinance language. At the time, it was clear to committee members and city councilors that autonomy was crucial. As explained in a January 2015 City Council General Government Committee meeting report:

The group met several times and considered questions [sic] whether the body should be advisory or have regulatory authority. Ultimately, they felt it was important for a Commission to have regulatory authority so that responsibility for decision-making regarding public art would not be concentrated in the Mayor’s Office.

As well-intentioned as the final ordinance was, commissioners struggled to understand the scope of their legal responsibilities. This confusion isn’t surprising: Other than approval and contracting authority, the Public Arts Commission was not given the resources any municipal arts commission needs to be successful.

The commission lacks staff or an administrative liaison to integrate its work with other city departments. It has no funding or mechanism for fundraising, such as a Percent for Art program, which makes the acquisition and maintenance of public art impossible. And the city has no public art plan. The 2014 comprehensive city plan, North Adams Vision 2030, does not reference public art despite numerous mentions of public space and culture.

The future of public art in North Adams

At this point, the overpass murals aren’t coming back. After two years covered in gray paint, it is unlikely they can be recovered. But it’s not about the paint; public art controversies never are. It’s not even about policy. In the three years the Public Arts Commission has been active, commissioners have spent nearly 25 percent of their time navigating ordinance amendments.

Meet the Author

Julia Dixon

Creative economy and cultural planning consultant, North Adams
Future meetings about public art in North Adams, and the commission that regulates it, must make room for discussions about resources and repercussions. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who signs a public art contract. It doesn’t matter who receives an application or how many days the Public Arts Commission has to review it. What’s important, and what city officials are forgetting, is that public engagement is the most significant element of public art.

Julia Dixon is a creative economy and cultural planning consultant based in North Adams. She was a founding appointed member of the North Adams Public Arts Commission, serving from November 2015 until December 2018, when she resigned.