SALEM — This is a city supposedly in the midst of a renaissance. After all, the developers arrived with bags full of money. Not far behind were the condo owners and restaurants. A new hotel was built, and the museum expanded once and plans to grow again.
It has been a decadelong rebirth with everything but the one thing that made the renaissance famous — good public art.
“Public art is one of those things that has been a missing ingredient in Salem,” Mayor Kim Driscoll told more than 70 people who came out in the rain last night to attend a public forum — really a working meeting — about the future of public art in the city.
The crowd, which included a lot of local artists, came to provide guidance to Via Partnership, consultants from St. Louis hired through a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help Salem take the first steps toward creating a lively, art-filled downtown.
The audience, which broke into a number of small groups, was asked to come up with an artistic vision for the city, possible sites for public art, and short- and long-term goals.
It was a night to let the imagination run wild.
Surprisingly, a lot of attention was focused on unlikely sites, like the tunnel at the train station. One person said it could be full of lights, another that it could be lined with paintings.
“It would make the train ride much more interesting,” said Joy Winkler, who spoke for one of the working groups.
Public art, several people said, can connect different parts of a city and bring neighborhoods together. There was talk of putting lights and fountains along the South River Harborwalk, which borders the low-income Point neighborhood.
“We’ve got a real strong line that needs to be crossed,” said Helen Sides, a local architect.
The entire waterfront was seen as a possible canvas. Even the power plant, which is slated for demolition, was seen as an opportunity. There could be visual projections or paintings on the walls of the one aged generator building that may be left standing.
“The power plant is a terrific opportunity,” Sides said.
Others said future art should reflect the city’s past, or acknowledge its unique history, like Salem’s recent recognition as the birthplace of the National Guard.
“We should have something artistic that shows that,” artist Paulette Langone said.
One person suggested that art could be right at your feet and lead tourists from one attraction to another.
“It would be nice to have something a little more understandable and identifiable than the red line,” said Laura Potter, general manager of Gulu-Gulu Cafe.
This was not a night for specific project ideas, but rather for broad brushes.
“I keep coming back to the word ‘original,’” said Sara Maurno, producer of a local cable arts show, “as in, we are the original port of culture for the country.”
“I want (the public art) to look like the people who live here, diverse and mixed,” said Jason Cruz, an art therapist.
The consultants will return next month with a draft of a public art plan for the city. The final report will be done by the summer. The two principals of the firm are excited about the possibilities.
“I think artists are going to have a blast here,” Emily Blumenfeld of Via Partnership said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.