Newport News Public Art Foundation

Newport News Public Art Foundation

You could just hear the sound of minds blowing. When a delegation from Newport News stood up at the annual conference of the American Planning Association Virginia Chapter in July 2014, what you heard from the presenters was the story of how, in just a decade, we built an “open-air art gallery” that is remarkable in its quality, size, diversity and accessibility. What you heard from the audience, if you listened really hard, were echoes of amazement: “You put up how many pieces of art?” “You put them where?” “You paid for them how?” And, “The City did what?”

Those questions capture what is unusual about the way we “do” art in Newport News. Most public art programs are part of local government, focused on adding art to government projects, funded from an amount (one or two percent) set aside from certain construction projects in the capital improvements budgets.

So you can imagine the response when people learned that a nonprofit organization, the Newport News Public Art Foundation, has taken the lead in our community. That we put art not just on public property, but also on private property where passers-by can enjoy it — think of Spirit of Life in front of Riverside Regional Medical Center. That the great majority of our pieces are funded by donations from the community. That, in other words, this community enjoys great art because it makes it happen.

And it all works because of partnerships. The Foundation is a small, volunteer-run organization that accomplishes big things by working with other organizations. The partnership that brought Selene by María Gamundí to Newport News includes the Public Art Foundation, the City, The Mariners’ Museum and the surrounding community. It’s about leverage: Every partner contributes, and the results help each achieve its mission and enhance its assets. So we work with the schools and CNU, sponsoring corporations and neighborhoods, other cultural organizations and civic groups — and the City, including the EDA. Our community would not enjoy the fabulous art that’s all around it without the City’s enthusiastic support, which runs the gamut from help with traffic management during installations to the EDA’s sponsorship of one of our signature pieces, the soaring Izar at the entrance to the Newport News – Williamsburg Regional Airport.

Part of the story that planners from across Virginia heard at the conference was about how intentionally the Foundation’s work is coordinated with the City’s economic development efforts. The addition of public art can help give presence to a new development, help differentiate it. Around City Center, for example, you see a number of pieces of art chosen specifically for the region’s “central business district” — and more are coming. Build a Dream is a fitting symbol for the community revitalization work along Jefferson Avenue, where it will anchor the Brooks Crossing project.

The response we got from planners was the same kind of response we got from elected and appointed officials across Virginia at the Virginia Municipal League conference in Arlington. Representatives from other localities crowded around the table, intrigued by the idea that with creativity, determination and the right partners, even in tight economic times, communities can enjoy all the benefits of public art without expecting public dollars to make it all happen.