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Art

Sep 6, 2013

Can public art help protect urban waterways?

A campaign to keep the Truckee River in Reno, Nevada, clear of pollution illustrates how public art can connect with the community while helping to protect a valuable ecological asset

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Public art in Reno, Nevada - fish drain

The City of Reno is keen to keep the Truckee River clean. It’s Reno’s biggest source of drinking water and an important ecological and recreation resource. However like watercourses elsewhere it gets polluted by urban run-off and dumping.

So the City started a campaign to encourage citizens to be careful about what they permitted to flow down stormwater drains and into the river. The campaign theme is “storm drains are the mouth of the river”.

Local artist Bryce Chisholm was invited to help. He painted a fish and an octopus on the pavement, using the drain as the creatures’ mouths. Four more drains will be painted later this year (here’s a short video).

This is an interesting exercise in promoting responsible behaviour and according to the organisers has been well-received by the public. But it also illustrates some of the points I’ve discussed before (see Should the public expect to like public art?) about what makes public art successful:

  • The works are simple and direct and likely to “connect” with a large part of the population, especially younger children and their parents. The graphic style borrows from popular culture and is whimsical, humorous and bright.
  • There’s a clear purpose/function for the art i.e. to draw attention to the part that street drains play in filling the river . It also has a wider moral justification i.e. the protection of a valuable and vulnerable community resource. The legitimacy of the works derive from their practical and moral purpose.
  • The intellectual idea and the artistic idea are easily comprehended – knowledge of the codes of art appreciation aren’t required. No one is excluded or patronised.

These characteristics might not all need to be present in order for public art to be successful, but they certainly help. Any time art is privileged to occupy a public space it does so with the implicit consent of the community and should seek to earn its respect and appreciation.

While its drawn attention to the key role of urban street drains as the “mouth of the river”, Reno’s program is new. What isn’t known yet is the one that matters most – how effective it will be in keeping the river clean.

Public art in Reno, Nevada - octopus drain

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