At a recent Salem City board meeting, Sheri Wahrgren announced that several pieces of art had made most of their journey through local committees. Wahrgren, who is City of Salem’s Downtown Revitalization Manager, expressed pleasure that these pieces would soon emerge on the streets of Salem.
Since Salem Weekly supports art, we thought we’d trace a few of the pathways art works take as they find their way into Salem public spaces. And we wanted to talk to some of the people who work to get it out there.
Salem Public Art Commission is a city panel of volunteers charged with overseeing the City’s public art collection. It acquires, maintains and catalogues much of the art we see. Chairman Rich Harcourt says his group works well with City Staff Liaison Vickie Woods (Wood’s full title is Director of Community Development for the City of Salem.)
The art on the walls of the Salem Public Library, in City Hall, in the foyer of the Conference Center and the Center’s “sculpture garden” at Commercial and Trade streets were all projects of the Commission and city staff. Sources for pieces are as diverse as private collections, donations by artists, purchase from artists and loans from institutions such as the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.
Nancy Lindburg is a member of the Commission, but has worked with other organizations to get art into the public eye since 1972, when she was among the volunteers to create the first “Mayor’s Invitational.” “The new Civic Center was just completed,” she remembers, “and with the blessing of then-Mayor Vern Miller and city staff, works of art by a number of fine artists were chosen to hang in the new buildings… Many generous people purchased works that would become the nucleus of Salem’s art collection.”
Lindburg has been director of the Salem Art Association and joined the Oregon Arts Commission (OAC) in 1978. She relished her work with the OAC because, “I could focus on the process of putting art of the highest quality in our state buildings, a process involving state agencies, the State System of Higher Education, architects, artists and educators and the general public.”
She believes in public art. “Public art helps to define a sense of place. Public art highlights the unique character of a community… It promotes beauty, wonder, dialogue, and it stimulates an awareness of the arts today, while creating a legacy for tomorrow.”
Another Commission member is Mary Lou Zeek, proprietor of the Mary Lou Zeek Gallery on State Street. Like Lindburg, Zeek has found several ways to get art into Salem’s public spaces.
She was involved with the Riverfront Project many years ago, where tiles designed by children were placed along the walkway. She then worked with Jan Gassner to create the tile horses (fired in her studio) for the restrooms at the carousel in Riverfront Park. She and many volunteers also created and installed the mural at the Gilbert House, part of Riverfront’s AC Gilbert Discovery Village.
Zeek was also one of the group who brought “Salmon in the City” to Salem. This was a 2005 walk-around downtown tour of twenty artful Salmon that had been decorated by area artists and put on public display.
The list goes on. “Ten years ago I started a show called the Door Show,” Zeek remembers. “Actual doors were placed throughout downtown and a walking map was provided.”
Another Zeek project was the ‘Detail Show’… “We photographed details of buildings & provided a walking map scavenger hunt. The show continues in the upstairs hallway at the Conference Center.”
Zeek is a firm proponent of art in public areas. “… It gives texture to the community. There are many people who travel each day looking at the same things…having a piece of art will stop them, give them pause to reflect.” She’s gratified when she sees people walking with maps in hand, hunting art around town. “I’ve heard from many that they love these shows,” Peterson says.
“The value of art in our public spaces and City buildings and parks could fill pages,” says Salem’s Mayor Anna Peterson, who credits Zeek with driving the effort to first get art into the Conference Center.
“That’s where it all started,” she says. “[Then-] Mayor Taylor was very supportive of the arts, and encouraged private sector arts supporters to form the Oregon Artists’ Series Foundation (OASF.)” Peterson herself chaired the OASF for several years prior to becoming mayor.
She clarifies that the City does not spend taxpayer’s money to buy art. Rather it’s been “the recipient of gifts of artworks and gifts of money to purchase art works.”
Most recently the Salem Chamber Orchestra was a prime sponsor of “Play Me, I’m Yours,” the placement of ten working pianos in various locations. During the Salem Art Fair, observers noticed that the piano placed at the corner of High and Lefelle in Bush Pasture Park was constantly in use.
The routes art takes to find itself on Salem streets are numerous, and seem to be restricted only by the imagination and passion of those who love it.