Valerie Vande Panne

This Small City Is Showing How Supporting Artists Can Have a Big Impact

Dayton, Ohio, is cool. Yes, really.

This little Midwestern city of 140,000 is overlooked by most of the USA—flyover country, they call it. Yet Dayton is teeming with the hallmarks of a sophisticated city: diverse population, farm-to-table bistros, local beers, hip bars, music, independent theater… and art. Lots of art.

Dayton Metro Library is leading this cultural change, investing one million dollars in local art, creating library spaces where the public is coming for everything from grassroots organizing and local chamber of commerce meetings to weddings and family reunions—in addition to library standbys like reading and research. The program is called Reimagining Works, and it’s inspiring people to hang out at their neighborhood library, by design.

Jayne Klose, spokesperson for the Dayton Metro Library system, says a $187 million bond issue passed in 2012—the largest in Ohio—to pay to rebuild the main library and rebuild or renovate 16 other libraries. (Klose was the campaign manager for the bond.) Then, an anonymous donor bequeathed $1 million to the library and the board decided to earmark those funds for local public art in their new libraries.

Recognizing they weren’t art experts, the library issued a request for proposals, and the Dayton Art Institute was awarded the partnership. From there, they worked out a program whereby public forums are held in the community where the library and art will be, to learn what the community values. The Dayton Art Institute then selects works from its collection that it thinks will speak to the community, and then the community votes on what they want to inspire the artists—what the artists will “reimagine.”

From there, regional artists—all from Ohio, and all from within 250 miles of Dayton—submit proposals for a work that will be placed in that specific library location. This makes the project a huge support for local artists, and gives them an opportunity to have their work on permanent display in their own hometown.

“It was incredibly forward-thinking for the library to invest its money in art,” says Susan Anable, project manager for Reimagining Works with the Dayton Art Institute.

Each location is receiving one to six pieces, and the amount of money spent on the art is determined by the location’s square footage—commissions range from a couple thousand dollars to six figures for the main library’s signature piece, Fractal Rain, an installation suspended 60 feet in the air, comprised of 3,756 prisms and five miles of steel wire, inspired by Monet’s Water Liliesand a Chimú mummy mask from Peru.

Terry Welker, 62, Fractal Rain’s creator, has lived in Dayton since he was a teenager. His artistic specialty is large-scale mobiles. Of the thousands of prisms in Fractal Rain, a sixth are hand-colored with the hues of Monet’s work, and says Welker, “If you look at the sculpture at certain times of the day, the colors reveal themselves.” Photographs don’t do the work justice: it is a piece of art to experience, in person—at the public library, for free.

In addition to the DAI works, the neighborhoods serve as inspiration; the downtown community’s relationship with rain and flooding helped inspire Fractal Rain. In Southeast Dayton, the community expressed support for its sycamore trees, and wanted to be sure the new library wouldn’t remove any. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Purple Leaves was selected to inspire a work now being created.

Kate Huser Santucci, 46, a Dayton local, creates in mixed media using a beeswax and oil paint medium. She won the commission for the Southeast branch, which is walking distance from her home of over 20 years. Her work is inspired in part by Purple Leaves and in part by Ovala Marea by Therman Statom, as well as the story of how the neighborhood has changed, with residents from Rwanda, Burundi and Turkey, in addition to the community’s emphasis on communal garden spaces.

“Local nature,” says Klose, comes into each library and artistic project.

The partnership between the Dayton Art Institute and the Dayton Metro Library drives people from the Art Institute to the library to see the work “reimagined,” and from the library to the DAI, to see the inspiration for the piece. “Each informs the other,” says Susan Anable. “It’s super creative and energizing for the branches.”

The partnership, she says, reinforces the importance of public art and sends the message to regional artists that their art is valuable. “We want to give them a place to show it,” she says.

The library, Klose says, “decided to spend a million dollars on art. That says a lot about the value of art in our community. I am thrilled to be included in this project. The idea that my art will be there for years to come….The opportunity for [local] artists to be a part of that and demonstrate how strongly we feel about our libraries here—I’m flattered.”

In addition to the art, Dayton is taking libraries up quite a few notches. Branches offer meeting rooms; collaborative spaces with tables, TVs and white boards; and a laptop vending area where you can check out a laptop and take it to a cushy chair or sofa to work. There’s audio and video editing as well, and a greenscreen room, all keeping in line with the idea that libraries are no longer just a place to consume content, but a place to create content, too.

Together, the art, architecture, 21st-century tech and homey comfort create spaces that bring dignity back to the public space. It makes the library an important “third place, where the people gather beyond work and home,” Klose says.

For artists, “their work is important to the community,” says Anable. “To have it in a library, accessible to all at no charge, is great. It’s wonderful. I think it’s a great model for communities.”

This piece was posted at AlterNet.

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