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North Adams Arts Commission Ponders Role in 'Public Facing' Art
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
02:30AM / Tuesday, September 17, 2019
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David Rees and Tracy Moore, at the far end of the table, give a presentation on Mass MoCA's plans for the so-called 'Leu lot' on Marshall Street.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Public Arts Commission got a rundown on the "Big Bling" that's going to be sited at the so-called "Leu lot" this fall. 
 
And while the commissioners were supportive of the efforts being made by Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts in developing the empty lot into a park to entice its visitors to the downtown, they acknowledged they had no control over the 40-foot by 40-foot installation that's going to be facing Main Street. 
 
Or any murals or other artwork that might be proposed on private property in the future. Any previews, such as was provided by Mass MoCA's David Rees and Tracy Moore is purely a courtesy, observed Chairwoman Anna Farrington. 
 
"There is no authority that regulates or recommends art work that's being placed on private property," she said Monday. "So like the Mass MoCA's 'Big Bling' project, we don't really have any authority to approve or not approve, or make recommendations."
 
The commission was established several years ago to oversee the placement or installation of artwork on public property, a function that had been largely confined to the mayor's office. However, the authority of the commission had been subject to changes — including two rewrites of its establishing ordinance — and all but two of the original commissioners have departed. 
 
That's left the new members feeling out their role and trying to reconcile their limited jurisdiction within the dictates of the city's burgeoning art scene. 
 
One aspect of that is "public facing art," or art that has high visibility but is on private property. For example, the murals painted for the O-Plus Festival did not require commission approval but they were presented to the commission as a matter of courtesy.
 
Farrington said she had spoken with Mayor Thomas Bernard and Building Inspector William Meranti and learned there was nothing in ordinance related to public art other than the commission. 
 
"One of the things that I had had a conversation with Bill Meranti regarding was whether or not there were any regulations or guidelines in place that would put some boundaries or restrictions on what might happen with private property," she said. "And there aren't any, which I found a little bit surprising, because there are so many restrictions and regulations and guidelines, for example, for signage."
 
She said she had nothing specific to propose but asked the commissioners if this was an area they wanted to explore further. 
 
Commissioner William Blackmer noted that the "Big Bling" could trigger other city ordinances, such as sight lines and setbacks, but not over its artistic value. 
 
Commissioner Sarah Sutro thought guidelines might be helpful. 
 
"Just so we can offer our thoughts," she said. "It does seem like it would be nice to be involved in some way. We can't impose ourselves, but we can offer something."
 
Farrington thought it could at best be a vetting process, where those installing a highly visible art display would come in and at least inform the commission what they were planning. She knew of one person who is excited about the idea of putting a mural on her building.
 
"It becomes a question of do we have a right to influence what she's putting up?" Farrington said. "Do we have to be able to just trust that people are going to do the right thing and do something that's not going to be detrimental to the city's value?"
 
She said she would have a followup conversation with the mayor on the topic and bring it back to the commission.
 
"I think, is that our ordinances, or sign ordinances, were written in a time that public art wasn't an issue," said Commissioner Bryan Sapienza. "And now that it is an issue, I think that maybe down the road that the city ordinances may have to be brought up to date as far as regarding public facing art."
 
Mass MoCA's two new deputy directors, Rees and Moore, presented the plans for the lot, also called the Mohawk Plaza, that were approved at last week's Planning Board. In response to questions about the 40-foot sculpture's integrity, Rees said the engineer who installed the work in both New York City and Philadelphia is also doing it here and that artist Martin Puryear has checked out his work that's been stored behind Big Y for a couple years. 
 
"He said it's actually doing very well," Rees said. "So there's some restoration that has to happen. But it's holding up pretty well. He's very happy."
 
Commissioner Derek Parker expressed some concern that people may try to climb the sculpture or place items inside it. Rees said that would not be possible because of the way it's constructed and noted it had been in two major cities without incident. 
 
Francis "Bigs" Waterman of Waterman Excavating is preparing the site for demolition and the plan is to have the work done before the snow falls. However, the plantings won't be done until spring, Rees said, based on the recommendations they were given. 
 
Rees couldn't speak to the fate of the interactive sound installation placed in the lot two years ago. The work is not owned by the museum and it could end up "going home," he said. 
 
In other business, Farrington reported that the PAC finally has a City Hall liaison in Zachary Feury, project coordinator in the Office of Community Development. Previous iterations of the commission had felt at loose ends trying to develop processes and procedures on their own while other boards had city personnel for support. 
 
She also said the commission's website is has been moved over to the city's site and asked the commissioners to review the FAQ before the old site is shut down. 
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