"What the heck are those things?" I thought as the tour guide drove past a series of sculptures along the bay, prompting myself and several others to turn our heads to get another glimpse. Whatever they were, they were very cool.
I learned later, those "things" comprise the Urban Trees Art Project, a series of thirty, 15 foot 'trees' constructed of metal, glass and concrete and other materials along the bay near the Port of San Diego temporarily installed in 2003 by the San Diego Public Arts Commission.
Interestingly, the project’s success – and controversy -- attracting national and international attention – prompted three additional phases of installations and continues to grow five years later. Why when other public art and cultural projects failed? Because they’re uniquely San Diego. Each has a theme and tells a story inherent to the city and region’s character. The goal is to "help create memorable spaces for businesses, residents and tourists."
That’s pretty simple.
The trees got me thinking. What is southeast Michigan’s public art policy and goals? There are plenty of organizations and efforts addressing the arts, culture and the creative sector. We have the Spirit of Detroit – celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this fall, the Joe Louis Fist, Ferndale's Crows Nest and hundreds of other public art features, but do they attract people from afar? I’m not sure. What do people think of them? I’m not sure.
For years, there’s been much talk about building or seeking another major attraction in southeast Michigan – a soccer facility, an aquarium, a horse racing track and many others – projects that will give us a much needed economic boost, but what makes these projects different?
Maybe we don’t need another race track, water park, or lifestyle mall, which for many visitors is frankly….boring. Projects devoid of our region’s unique character yell 'any city USA'.
By the way, since inception the Urban Trees project has generated $$$$$
Southeast Michigan needs a regional public art policy. Organizations like the CVB, WA3, Detroit Renaissance, Cultural Alliance and others could help shape it and provide a broader perspective and guidance on large, public and privately funded projects.
For example, communities along Woodward are considering the development and installation of a series of 30’ sculptures, called Woodward Tributes. The first Tribute will be erected this September, with future Tributes being considered in Detroit and other communities.
However, the process will most likely fall to individual communities for their acceptance and approval. Not surprising considering, again local control is king in southeast Michigan. And while many communities have individual arts commissions, working through a regional council would also enhance funding opportunities, public and private, and enliven and challenge new ideas.
Then when people come to southeast Michigan and say ‘"did you see those things?" we know it’s with a sense of awe and interest that will prompt them to return and tell their friends.