Know your past to chart your future: three successful projects in Boston’s history

As we at Now and There prepare for our first project, we’ve been looking back over some of the more successful temporary public art projects in Boston’s history. After all, you need to know your history before you can chart a new course. For this guest blog post we asked Sarah Hutt, former Director of Director of Public Art in the Office of Cultural Affairs under Mayor Tomas Menino, to choose her top three favorite projects. In the essay below Hutt focuses on the years 2001–2002 around the time of the Office’s Boston Cultural Agenda Fund that funded over 100 projects in Boston.


Temporary Public Art 2001-2002
Sarah Hutt
April 21, 2015

There are moments when the stars align and the planning and preparation provide the tools for unexpected opportunities. From 2000 to about 2003, while I was Director of Public Art in the Office of Cultural Affairs, mayor Tomas Menino announced the creation of the short lived Boston Cultural Agenda Fund (BCAF). From that fund we produced a series of temporary art interventions inside Boston City Hall and outside on City Hall Plaza and assisted with other independently produced projects throughout the city.  The following three projects are examples of moments when artists, the City and community successfully came together to make stimulating public art experiences.

Redefining Open Space  image: Lisa Greenfield

Redefining Open Space image: Lisa Greenfield

While not funded by the BCAF, the gorilla project Redefining Open Space in 2001 served as the unofficial launch of this exciting time.  Redefining Open Space was the creation of the Fort Point Art Community artist team of Lisa Greenfield and Jennifer Moses. This 24-hour project funded by the Fort Point Cultural Coalition through a grant from the Miller Foundation turned the sidewalks of Summer Street bridge into beautiful grassy lanes. Utilizing 10 tons of sod, the artists transformed the approximately 400’ long bridge sidewalk overnight into a green space that greeted thousands of people walking from South Station to their jobs in Fort Point.

Who did this? How did they do it?

While there was an immediate panic throughout the 5th floor of City Hall -- ‘Who did this?’ ‘How did they do it?’ ‘Why didn’t anyone complain?’ -- the positive public response that poured into the Mayor’s Hotline turned City Hall’s opinion from fearful speculation into jubilant support for the project.

The overwhelming success of Redefining Open Space resulted in support for other projects to follow. In particular the strong commitment by Department of Public Works Commissioner Joseph Casazza (1968 – 2007) to incorporate public art into areas under his jurisdiction. Casazza created mechanism to successfully permit unique public art installations along the bridges and harbor and helped paved the way for what has become an annual series of temporary public art events championed by the Fort Point Art Community during Fall Open Studios.

Redefining Open Space  image: Lisa Greenfield

Redefining Open Space image: Lisa Greenfield

Our next opportunity to create memorable temporary public art came later that year, during the city wide 2001 Boston Cyberarts Festival. A bold proposal was presented, Symphony of a City by Liz Canner and John Ewing; a projection on the façade of Boston City Hall designed to create dialogue and reflection about housing and community building.

Community groups in the Greater Boston area selected eight individuals to represent them in a day-in-the-life video. Participants included Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner and artist Barbara Ward.  Each participant wore a tiny video camera on their head and documented life from their perspective for one day.

Permitting such a project, which needed to project the image from the Faneuil Hall plaza across the street to City Hall, was no small task. The image had to be high enough so as not to project into a passing car or truck and the projector and equipment had to be on an accessible structure. Complications manifested.

Solve the problems.

At the time Boston Cyberarts Festival was the largest Techno gathering in the country (1999-2011) and mention of it and the City Hall projection in the then widely read Time magazine created such a flurry of excitement that the word went out from the Mayor’s 5th floor offices to ‘solve the problems’ and we proceeded to great public enthusiasm.   

Symphony of a City  image: Brien Colgan

Symphony of a City image: Brien Colgan

Over the course of two days, videos generated by each participant were juxtaposed on the building façade so at any given moment four stories were on view. The Faneuil Hall plaza and Dock Square were filled at sunset when the video began rolling.  People familiar with the personalities found great joy in seeing their neighborhoods from the video’s eye. The real life element of walking down a street and interacting with friends and neighbors brought a humanity to the city not often felt.

In 2002, City Hall Plaza was again transformed using mapmaking techniques to represent the Scollay Square community that populated the area, the West End, before it was demolished due to urban development.

Making Time Visible: The Scollay Square Project was produced by artist/architect Gretchen Schneider who oversaw the surveying and redrawing of Scollay Square (raised in 1962) in chalk. The three-day event took place with the assistance of Citizens Schools students, providing them with hands-on, as well as classroom experience in mapmaking, urban planning, architecture and art.

Making Time Visible:   The Scollay Square Project  image: Lee Herterich

Making Time Visible: The Scollay Square Project image: Lee Herterich

Permissions for the project required multiple “tests” of chalk on the brick of City Hall Plaza to provide proof the chalk wouldn’t permanently stain the brick or track into City Hall and surrounding businesses. 

Once it was implemented, the view from the BRA 9th floor windows that overlooked the plaza were spectacular – by bringing art to the very people that oversaw its success or failure seemed to bring a renewed commitment to include public art interventions into the city’s planning. 

From the ground there was an overwhelming feeling of history as you stood at the location of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell’s studios.

Looking from the site of General Joseph Warren home towards the Old North Church tower you could imagine waiting for the lanterns to announce the beginning of the revolution or, walking along Hanover Street in the footsteps of William Lloyd Garrison who published the Liberator from his storefront home.

Making Time Visible:   The Scollay Square Project  image: Sarah Hutt

Making Time Visible: The Scollay Square Project image: Sarah Hutt

Guest blogger Sarah Hutt lives and works in the South End Boston in one of Boston's earliest live/work spaces that she helped create. When not acting as the Collection Care Manager of Friends of the Public Garden or assisting NEFA's Fund for the Arts, Sarah can be found in her studio.

This article was updated on May 1 with the names of the Redefining Open Space funders.