Art of Space: Springfield, MO as Oeuvre

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“Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more.”
—Aldo Van Eyck


When I landed in downtown Springfield, as a visiting architecture professor at Drury University in late summer 2010, the number of people pouring into downtown for the city’s First Friday Art Walk dramatically changed my perception of this small, but sprawling, Midwestern city that no one I knew had ever heard of. Thousands of residents packed the sidewalks, shops, and public plaza in an area equal to six New York City blocks, in spite of redevelopment stalled by the Global Financial Crisis, and the glaring fact that a quarter of the storefronts downtown remained empty or abandoned, often over block-long stretches that left gaping holes in the urban fabric. Fire jugglers blazed and swirled in the town square, while fundamentalists stood on street corners with placards proclaiming the subjugation of wives to their husbands. Rosy families and Goth rockers mingled on the sidewalks. The place crackled with congestion.

The City of Springfield, MO, like many cities in the West and Midwest, is relatively unconstrained by natural boundaries. It sits on a plateau in the Ozarks of southwest Missouri, originally straddling the low bluff of the Jordan Creek valley, fed by springs percolating through the karst terrain. It has two downtowns: the first located on donated farmland spreading south from the most prominent portion of the bluff, just uphill from a rail line that follows the flood plain of the creek, and the other along the former rail yard of a competing rail company once headquartered about a mile and a half to the north. Springfield and North Springfield, with their respective downtowns and rail roads, united as a single municipality in 1887. A prosperous city grew between and around these two nodes. In the decades after WWII, the city doubled in size and the low density development that typified the residential neighborhoods pushed the edges outward. A concentrated commercial and retail district no longer made sense to city officials, who revised zoning ordinances to create a ring of highway oriented businesses —after all, transportation officials in Springfield conceived Route 66 — between the city center and the far flung edge of town, a sprawl contained within the political and economic boundaries of the city.  The booming automobile culture, and the profitability of developing former farmland away from the city center, drained business and culture from the relatively dense, antiquated brick-and-stone, turn-of-the-century infrastructure of downtown. By the late 1980’s entire blocks of Center City had been razed for parking lots, a move which failed to ameliorate the stultifying decline. Half of the historic downtown lay empty and abandoned into the late 1990’s, creating fertile ground for music venues, artists and galleries looking for low rents and urban ambiance, all within a mile of the two regionally important universities.

Founded as a sort of business association for the handful of galleries and studios, who, along with the music venues moving into downtown, breathed cultural life back into the Center City, Art Walk has evolved into a major social event, a celebration of art making within the community, and a powerful sign of revitalization. After ten years of monthly art walks, almost all of the retail and hospitality businesses downtown display artwork for sale. Ironically, the general public in Springfield does not buy much art, if any, and apparently collectors do not purchase art at Springfield galleries. The Art Walk public is buying something, on the other hand. Retailers that aren’t usually open late on Fridays welcome potential customers until 10 pm. From 1999 to 2007 retail sales in Center City had increased at twice the rate as the rest of Springfield. Over the same period another indicator of economic activity, building permits, had increased 85% downtown, while decreasing 15% elsewhere in the city. For all of the apparent change, however, market processes have been slow, even hesitant, to complete the re-habitation of Center City. There are still the silent, empty building spaces, spaces practically shouting to be filled by the tremendous outpouring of Springfield residents, residents who signal their excitement for the ongoing resurgence through their presence at Art Walk. The mode of art production and consumption embodied by Art Walk seems an inadequate vehicle for the energy and desire embodied by all of those people.

Soon after my incredible first Art Walk experience, Chantal Drennan, owner of a recently opened Gelato Mio, approached me about utilizing portions of her space as a gallery for student artwork. I first proposed a series of installations by architecture students, pitching examples of highly successful projects executed by recognized designers. Chantal quickly recognized that her shop was barely adequate for the scope of the examples and mentioned an empty space in the basement (most recently occupied and abandoned by an improv comedy club) that she used for storage. As an architect in Boston I had designed a series of temporary educational pavilions and exhibits for non-profits constructed by volunteers, and had explored participatory public art in collaboration with Weaving Hand and the Textile Art Center in Brooklyn through a weaving installation entitled MetaLoom. Since being invited to Drury, I’d been thinking about bringing this form of spatial practice to Springfield. In an instant Chantal and I decided to initiate a new form of temporary public art practice downtown that we would call Art of Space, using First Friday Art Walk as our platform. Twice a year we would appropriate work by nationally or internationally recognized artists as a form of détournement, exploiting the civic potential of simple, iterative construction techniques and common materials to transform vacant spaces downtown, inviting residents of Springfield to contribute to the construction of the immersive, and often interactive installations in advance of the evening-long Art Walk.

Our goals were simple. Participation in Art Walk, clearly understood as part of the effort to reverse blight and to restore vitality to downtown, seemed motivated by civic pride as much as curiosity and interest in the arts – or the desire to spend. Art of Space would provide an opportunity for members of the Springfield community to contribute directly to urban revitalization through the creation of works in appropriated, empty urban spaces, making art that could be experienced and understood as the spatial embodiment of community. Mindful of Henri Lefebvre’s characterization of the city as oeuvre, we sought to subvert the processes of objectification and commodification that typified the art and space of Art Walk, and downtown redevelopment in general. We would create space as an event, prioritizing cooperation and shared experiences of wonder, as an alternative to business as usual. No one can downplay the importance of the marketplace to urban revitalization, but sole reliance on markets – whether real estate or art – has its clear shortcomings, apparent in the yawning gaps downtown. We began with the realization that the commercial form of First Friday Art Walk thwarts a full expression of the impulse that brings residents together downtown for Art Walk in the first place. The ephemeral nature of Art of Space installations would contribute to an emphasis on process, context and memory, and allude to the constantly shifting, temporal essence of the urban condition. We scheduled our first installation for the following spring, while I went to work obtaining the necessary approvals and support that would contribute to the realization of  a new approach to public art in our community.

In the past year-and-a-half, a combination of Springfield residents, artists, Drury University students, faculty and staff have created three installations within the two historic commercial centers, as well as a outdoor, publicly accessible space on the Drury campus. Contingency has always been an important element of the Art of Space project, and we’ve maintained a degree of flexibility in our relationship to site, materials and schedule to advance an inclusive, temporary form of public art in Springfield. The strong social and place-making component of the project has resulted in invitations for high-profile installations outside of the urban infrastructure context, which we’ve embraced. In planning and executing all of our installations we work very closely with landlords, and with city and institutional authorities, to comply with life-safety and building occupancy requirements, obtaining permits as necessary. We benefit from the serendipitous correspondence of our stated objectives with the city’s strategic goals “to fill the voids” in the downtown street-scape by occupying vacant and underutilized sites, while increasing resident participation in the arts and contributing “to the further creation of a vibrant Center City.”  We receive terrific support from city departments and not-for-profit agencies – notably the Urban Districts Alliance and the Springfield Regional Arts Council –  charged with executing a new vision for the city. Our ability to produce unique and notable results with limited resources has opened the door for a deepening involvement in planning and funding initiatives for public art. While the economic crisis that began in 2008 has created tremendous challenges for the arts in Springfield and the ongoing re-ascendancy of downtown, the resulting pause has provided a unique opportunity for Art of Space – as investigation of the nature and form of urban public space – to establish a role for communal installation art in the civic life of our city.


Images courtesy of Art of Space.

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