Art for the masses

Brian Thornton

New public art projects to come to campus

“Behind the Brain,” in front of Merrill Hall, is one of three art projects on campus built as part of Ohio’s Percent of Art program. SEAN DAUGHERTY | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Jason Hall

When freshman exploratory major Kayla Troy went searching for a place to study between classes, she found art instead.

“I needed someplace to go because going back to my dorm would be a waste of time,” she said.

Kent State’s Web site brought her to the sculpture garden in front of Merrill Hall – commonly referred to by students as “the Brain.”

Sandstone-colored benches and shelves of concrete books provide a place to rest, and a cool breeze drops the warm afternoon temperature by a few degrees. Cascading water drowns out the sound of machinery on nearby buildings and the rush of cars on Terrace Drive just steps away.

“It’s peaceful,” Troy said as she paused on the smooth, salmon-colored bench, her notebook open across her lap.

Professor Emeritus Brinsley Tyrrell’s “Behind the Brain” is one of three art projects on campus made possible by Ohio’s Percent for Art program, said Thomas Euclide, director of the Office of the University Architect. Two more are planned for the coming year.

State law requires that when a building project receives $4 million or more in state funding, 1 percent of that money must be spent on art.

“It’s automatic,” he said. “You have to build it into your project budget.”

Since the Ohio legislature passed the law in 1990, Percent for Art has funded two other campus installations.

Janet Lofquist’s “Spiral Growth” rises in two white Fond du Lac-stone curved walls out of the landscaped gardens on the north side of Cunningham Hall.

And Mikyoung Kim’s aluminum-lattice sculpture outside the Liquid Crystals Materials Science Building evokes the curious properties of liquid crystals through an ever-changing array of colors, which are produced by fiber-optic lights woven through the structure.

Public art plays a variety of functions, said Greg Peckham, executive director of Cleveland Public Art. It transforms spaces. It increases visibility and awareness. And it helps people raise their expectations.

“It’s really any sort of creative intervention or endeavor that shapes people’s experience of the public realm,” he said.

Kent State’s exterior projects are not the only options in the state program.

“It could be a sculpture hanging from a ceiling,” Euclide said. “It could be a mosaic on a wall.”

The Ohio Arts Council, which manages Percent for Art, does not define public art as having to be outside.

“For this program, it needs to be in an area that can be seen by the public,” said program coordinator Irene Finck.

In a typical year, the program provides $1 million in statewide art funding, although the legislature has approved less in recent years, she said.

The process begins with the selection of a committee. Because money is tied to a specific construction project, committee members include people who have a stake in the finished product, such as faculty and staff who will work in the building, Finck said.

Beth Ruffing, assistant director for capital design and construction, works with the Ohio Arts Council to form the committee, which meets to choose the type of art, location and artist.

“We typically have been picking more local, Ohio-based artists,” she said.

While not required by law, selecting an in-state artist has advantages.

“The more money you spend bringing artists in from far away, the less money you have for the art,” Ruffing said.

Percent for Art projects at Kent State have ranged from $80,000 for Cunningham Hall to more than $200,000 for Merrill Hall. That project combined funds available from renovations to Merrill, Moulton and Lowry halls as well as Carol A. Cartwright Hall, she said.

Through brainstorming sessions and help from the Ohio Arts Council, the committee narrows its options to three to five potential artists. Those artists submit proposals, which include concepts of the completed work from which the committee makes its selection.

The stacked-stone contours at Cunningham Hall and over-sized brain and books at Merrill Hall emerged from the proposal page as expected. “Liquid Crystals,” on the other hand, was a frustrating experience, Ruffing said.

Once an artist is picked, the council handles the contract for the project. That contract allows the artist to make aesthetic choices about the final piece.

“We don’t have the opportunity to say, ‘We don’t like that shade of blue,'” Ruffing said. “It’s up to the artist’s discretion. We have to trust that we’ll get something we’ll like.”

The original “Liquid Crystals” proposal called for a series of mounds formed from aluminum plates stacked horizontally. The artist planned to leave 1-inch gaps between layers and paint the underside of the plates so that fiber-optic lighting would cause them to glow.

During the protracted process, Ruffing learned the fabricator was having issues with the sculpture. She inquired about the problem and requested drawings. That was when she learned the original design had been changed drastically, she said.

The installed project – three vertical webs of interlocking geometric patterns – maintains the aluminum plates and fiber-optic lights of the proposal. The difference, Ruffing said, is a matter of individual taste.

Kent State has had no Percent for Art projects since 2002, when “Spiral Growth” and “Liquid Crystals” were finished. But the renovation of Kent Hall, completed in 2005 and home of the Department of Psychology, and the ongoing work on Franklin Hall, which will house the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, both included state funding for art.

Committees have not yet met for either project, Ruffing said, but the process should begin soon and be finished in time for artwork to be installed in the summer of 2007.

Next year’s state request for funding for the renovation of Oscar Ritchie Hall, where the department of Pan-African Studies is housed, also will likely include Percent for Art funds, she said.

Past and future projects funded by Percent for Art represent Kent State’s mission, said Greg Peckham of Cleveland Public Art.

“I think the idea about art in the university setting is to challenge people to think whether this is something they like or don’t like,” he said. “It’s another tool for generating opinions in people – discourse. I think it says something about the type of values the university has: ‘We feel the public realm is important.’ “

Contact features correspondent Brian Thornton at [email protected].