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

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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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3 thoughts on “Can public art help protect urban waterways?

  1. Bruce Dickson

    Your series on public art, in terms of comments made since, has certainly drawn out the fact that people have very different and seemingly very firm ideas of what is art and what isn’t!

    I wonder if the most ancient of the original ‘art’ placed by humans on the walls of caves and on rock faces would still qualify as ‘artistic’ activity and ‘artistic’ in nature. Or was it too, simply advertising and marketing, too unchallenging, lacking in intellectual content, etc.

    Maybe if, tens of thousands of years ago, the ‘creators’ of these rock ‘paintings’ had simply bothered to grab some paper and type out their interpretations on the meanings of what they had just done … and stuck it up alongside their work … artistic credibility and the fact that it was indeed art would have then become instantly indisputable.

    And having visitors issued with a copy of their gallery exhibition catalogue upon entering the cave might also have eliminated any remaining question marks about their work’s validity as art?

    The church lost power when their monopoly on interpreting and reading the scriptures ended with the arrival of the book and the printing press. Coupled with a growth in literacy. Did ‘true art’ and ‘true artists’ also lose power over their sense of creative exclusivity with the arrival of the digital age and the internet?

    Is a child’s creative output, innocent as it is, not ‘art’ because of something it lacks in content, edge, imagination or originality? Or as many artists acknowledge, is it unfettered artistic expression at its freest, a zone they frequently desperately wish to return to? (And are these cartoonish Reno public artworks discountable as art because of these very childlike qualities?)

    Finally should the work of Toulouse Lautrec be not considered art because of its advertising/marketing and commercial usage origins??

  2. Alan Davies

    hk #1:

    OK, I’ll bite (pun intended)…if there’s a line, where is it?

  3. hk

    The examples are a form of advertising and marketing. Maybe decoration…and certainly novel…but art? ..No!

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