This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.
"Do you remember these bumper stickers around town that [used to say], ‘If your town doesn't have a skate park, it is a skate park?’" asks Mark Tucker, founder of Ann Arbor's annual FestiFools
puppet parade. "I feel a little bit like that about public art."
Tucker says that without an explicit, concerted effort to create murals, sculptures, and other art installations in public spaces, the buildings around us — for better or worse, and however mundane or unattractive they may be — become our only source of public art.
"We’re putting up the same brown blocks of steel, glass, and brick one after another after another," Tucker says. "… Is this what you really want to be looking at? Is this a reflection of who we are as a community?"
Mark Tucker at FestiFools Studio.
The question of public art — what it is, what it should look like, what its purpose might be, who should pay for it, and who gets to decide any of those matters — has never been a simple one in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, or anywhere else, for that matter.
But in recent years, Washtenaw County organizations have taken it upon themselves to change the landscape, literally and figuratively. Both the Ann Arbor Art Center
and the Ann Arbor- and Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Embracing Our Differences Michigan
have managed to bypass bureaucratic red tape by relying primarily on private donations. As a result, about two dozen installations, temporary and permanent alike, have begun to spring up throughout the county.
Lingering just outside the spotlight are an Ann Arbor-based couple who have quietly but forcefully contributed to the vast majority of these public art projects. Larry and Lucie Nisson, who began their careers as psychotherapists before devoting themselves to their art — Larry Nisson in stained glass and glassblowing, Lucie Nisson in mosaics — have helped catalyze projects by FestiFools, Murals That Bridge
, the Ann Arbor Art Center, and Embracing Our Differences.
An Embracing Our Differences installation in Ann Arbor's Gallup Park.
Lucie Nisson describes the couple's goal as simultaneously modest and ambitious, understated and dauntless: "As much uplifting, joyful art up outdoors in Ann Arbor [as possible]."
Art in Public
The Ann Arbor Art Center launched an Art in Public
program in 2018. Hannah Kirkpatrick, director of the program, says it "seeks to enliven our shared urban spaces with art through murals, sculptures, and installations."
"We pair downtown building owners and businesses with local, regional, and national artists who transform their walls into something spectacular and it provides the community and visitors with the opportunity to experience and enjoy large, vibrant works of public art in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti," Kirkpatrick says.
As part of that process, Kirkpatrick’s team works carefully to match clients with a mural artist, whether or not those clients "have a specific content or style that they're looking for."
Kirkpatrick and the artists she works with are equally intentional about how each mural will look in context, or in relationship to other murals — and buildings in general — around it.
Hannah Kirkpatrick in front of Ouizi's "Drift" mural.
"I would like to avoid the feeling of things looking hodgepodge," she says.
Since its 2018 inception, the Art in Public program has completed a total of 19 murals and four installations in Ann Arbor alleyways, with more projects on the way.
As Kirkpatrick notes, the phrase "public art" refers to art funded by taxpayer dollars or located in public spaces. She isn’t opposed to collaborating with city government on those sorts of projects — the Art Center has done so in the past, and likely will again, she says — but her focus is elsewhere.
"The majority of the Art in Public work is on private property with private funds, but out in the public for the public to enjoy," she says.
Lynne Settles at Riverside Arts Center.
Kirkpatrick, along with other notable Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti leaders in art initiatives, is enthusiastic about the value of public art (and art in public, for that matter).
"Public art has demonstrated the ability to increase foot traffic, drive tourism, enhance public safety, [make] spaces feel welcome, and spur economic development," she says.
She adds that "an urban landscape filled with unique art can really have the power to improve our day-to-day relationship with our environment," which can in turn "inspire others to create [and to] think creatively about our shared urban spaces."
Lynne Settles is art director for Embracing Our Differences Michigan, the local offshoot of Florida-based Embracing Our Differences
, which aims to create social change through community-driven public art. She says public art is a valuable contribution to "cultural expression, identity, community engagement, … [and] civic pride."
This mural project in Ypsilanti, a collaboration between adult muralist Gary Horton and local teens, was facilitated by members of Embracing Our Differences.
Art "brings people together [and] showcases shared experiences," Settles adds, "because art is a great tool for educating people."
Public art can also "improve morale and mental health," Lucie Nisson says.
But each person interviewed for this article also mentioned more basic, even elemental, benefits to be gained from public art.
"We know how beautiful art makes us feel, and so we want to give that feeling to other people in the community," Larry Nisson says.
The Dreiseitl debacle
The current state of art in public in Washtenaw County is still heavily influenced by contentious debates that go back nearly two decades. In 2007, Ann Arbor City Council established an ordinance known as the Percent for Art program, which devoted 1% of the city budget to public art projects. The program proved to be controversial, with citizens vehemently arguing for and against it.
Remnants of these debates are still visible online in the comments sections for archived Ann Arbor News articles. One comment reads: "City should not be paying for art in this economic climate." Another commenter asks, "What is more important, Human life and the safety of our citizens or public art[?]"
A 2012 millage that would have canceled the Percent for Art program in favor of direct funding for public art was itself voted down. After a city task force recommended overhauling the Percent for Art program, it was canceled entirely in 2013.
While some resident opposition was related to property tax increases (the millage would have raised homeowners' property taxes by approximately $1 a month), much of it developed as a direct response to specific artworks erected by the city. One particular sculpture installed outside City Hall, which the Ann Arbor News
described at the time as "the highest-profile project so far" by the Percent for Art program, drew particular vitriol.
Herbert Dreiseitl's sculpture outside Ann Arbor City Hall.
When the sculpture, designed by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl, was unveiled, many were disappointed, if not outright affronted, by its appearance. (Dreiseitl had also included a water feature in the sculpture’s design that, as of the unveiling, did not appear to work correctly.) Ann Arbor News commenters' reactions ranged from "cheap and Vegas-y" to "colossal waste of taxpayer funds."
Dreiseitl’s sculpture was unveiled in early October 2011; in November 2012, the city voted against the public art millage, and by the summer of 2013, the Percent for Art program had been entirely dismantled.
"That was not a home run," Tucker says of the Dreiseitl affair.
"As an art enthusiast and a former art educator who believes in community arts, I understand the value of art," Settles says. But like others with a direct stake in the public art debate, Settles is ready to acknowledge what she calls the "drawbacks" of civic funding for art, "such as taking money away from other budget priorities," she says.
Mark Tucker paraphrases the argument against civic funding for art in this way: "If we already didn't have the resources to take care of our own people in this community, why are we wasting resources on something as frivolous as public art?"
While debates around public art are often framed as this kind of either/or proposition, the reality is more nuanced for the Nissons.
Lucie and Larry Nisson.
"You need basic sustenance," Larry Nisson says. "Obviously, you need the essentials, but you also need more. That's why art is so important. It nourishes people."
But "when the Dreiseitl was so disappointing to so many," Tucker says, "that clearly made it very difficult to stand up and … champion [public art]."
According to Tucker, after the Dreiseitl sculpture went up and the public art millage was voted down, the connotations around the words "public art" in Ann Arbor became increasingly negative, if not untenable.
"‘Public art’ is equated with spending an enormous amount of money and getting very little tangible creativity in response," he says.
Even now, more than a decade later, Tucker says, "If it's funding I want to go after [to support FestiFools], I don't lead with ‘This is public art’ — not in Ann Arbor."
Into the fray
Shortly after the Percent for Art program was dismantled, the Nissons initiated their ongoing collaboration with the Ann Arbor Art Center—but they say the city’s debates weren’t solely responsible for their leap into the fray.
"That was just one of many [factors]," Larry Nisson says.
"But it served as a motivation for us," Lucie Nisson adds. "I would say that definitely contributed to our decision to start doing Art in Public."
When the city voted down the public art millage, "we were disappointed," Larry Nisson says, but the Nissons saw an opening they were uniquely able to fill. "If we see something that needs to be fixed, we like to go out and try and fix it."
Jesse Kassel's mural for A2AC Murals.
"We decided that we would make it happen – because there was nobody [else] who cared, who was advocating for it," Lucie Nisson says.
They began working with the Art Center to put projects into motion that would require neither public input nor public funding and yet would be publicly accessible.
"Now it's really happening," Lucie Nisson says.
This story is part one of a two-part series. Check back soon for the second installment, which will cover new public art initiatives in Ann Arbor and Ypsi, as well as the importance of visual literacy.
Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.
All photos by Doug Coombe except Embracing Our Differences project photos (courtesy of Embracing Our Differences) and Larry and Lucie Nisson photo (courtesy of Larry and Lucie Nisson).