The cold concrete and glass walls of the Interlink facing Jefferson Boulevard is the giant canvas artists are being asked to consider as the Rhode Island Council on the Arts looks to commission a work for which it has $270,000.
“It is not like a gallery or museum work. There are not that many [artists] who do it well,” says Elizabeth Keithline, the agency’s grants to organizations and public art manager.
Interest in the project is bubbling.
“Public art couldn’t be more different [than museum displays]; everyone comes in contact with it,” said Keithline.
The arts council heavily advertised the project, sending notices to arts groups and posting details on websites. It paid off.
Keithline said there were 127 online applications in response to the request for qualifications or RFQ. As part of the RFQ, artists submitted digital examples of their work within the last 10 years, along with their resumes and a written statement of their concept for site-specific public art for the rental car and station garage.
To be exact, the “canvas” is 463 feet, 2 inches long and 75 feet, 2 inches high, and the goal, as stated in the RFQ, “is to make the greatest positive visual impact on this particular façade.”
But artists face a challenge, for this is not an uninterrupted surface and as an “open parking garage” under the building code, the openings must be maintained for proper ventilation.
The RFQ goes on to say the artwork must be installed in front of the existing surfaces and will require a building permit.
Usually, Keithline said, a panel of five selects artwork for public projects, but since the Interlink is a partnership of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and the State Department of Transportation, the panel consists of seven members. None of the members are state employees.
Quoting Rhode Island Arts Council executive director Randy Rosenbaum, Keithline said, “You don’t want state bureaucrats selecting art.”
Regardless, ever since legislation in 1988 requiring that 1 percent of public works projects be earmarked for public art, reaching agreement on what’s art, and whether the money would be better spent, has proven to be tumultuous at times. The airport hasn’t been immune to the controversy. During the construction of the terminal in the early ’90s, the committee charged with selecting art for the building favored a structure in the lobby that would periodically produce mist, sending it upward in a glass-enclosed structure. The airport administration opposed that on the basis of operating and maintenance costs and it was quickly labeled the “cloud machine.”
Some people took offense at that characterization; that the machine was nothing more than a gimmick and failed to meet their definition of art. Eventually, the cloud machine was abandoned. In its place, transparent panels resembling wings were erected in the terminal. Outside, a rough-shaped sculpture, looking more like a rock than anything else, was placed near the crosswalk to the terminal.
One of the more recent controversial public funded art works has been the Natural Song Lines at the Gov. Philip W. Noel Courthouse. That project provides pedestrians crossing from the court-parking garage to the courthouse with continuous recordings of chirping birds. Since the public art law was enacted, 30 works have been commissioned, Keithline said.
Under the legislation, 1 percent of the cost of constructing, remodeling or renovating a state building is to be set aside for art. In situations where the project cost less than $250,000, the 1 percent set aside may be transferred to art for other state facilities.
Keithline sees a unique opportunity for the artwork of the Interlink garage to dovetail with the city’s master plan for the intermodal district and quite possibly creating a trademark repeated throughout the district as well as the MBTA stop.
“This has its own story,” she said of the district.
As one committee member recently resigned, Keithline said the timetable for selection of three finalists has been delayed until a replacement is named. Finalists were to have visited the site last month. Committee members will review the online applications and rank them, narrowing the field down to 30 or 40. They will then meet to name three finalists. Keithline hopes the panel will be able to meet again in late April or early May to hear the finalists and make a selection.
The finalists, who will be paid an honorarium of $2,500, will be asked to explain how their artwork will be sourced and built. Their proposals will remain the property of the artist.
Keithline said the process will be open and, in fact, there will be an opportunity for public comment. The recommendations of the selection committee will then be forwarded to the State Council on the Arts for a commission for the work.
Among the criteria are: artistic quality; the ability to carry out the project within budget; its value in relation to the commission; the durability of the work and the willingness of the artist to consult with community members, including architects, landscape architects, civil engineers, general contractor and building staff.