Lawrence revs up a public art project

A stretch of Ninth Street east of downtown Lawrence will be part of new corridor enhancements in the city’s Cultural District.
A stretch of Ninth Street east of downtown Lawrence will be part of new corridor enhancements in the city’s Cultural District. The Kansas City Star

If the germinal phase of the “Ninth Street Corridor Project” is any indication, ArtPlace America’s recent $500,000 grant to the Lawrence Arts Center was money well spent. A spirit of originality, democracy and respect has permeated every step of the process.

Lawrence, like Kansas City down the road, has demonstrated a concerted commitment to the arts with a newly christened Cultural District and the creation of a full-time, city-financed arts and culture directorship. These are just two of the reasons why it earned the prestigious national grant.

Another is the character of the project itself.

The streetscape project will serve multiple purposes. On top of necessary repairs, it will provide a splash of color to a historic part of town, creating an attraction for out-of-towners as well as locals by making better connections to existing historic, neighborhood and commercial properties.

According to City Commissioner and former Mayor Bob Schumm, it “has the potential to be one of the strongest attractive elements of Lawrence.”

The project involves synthesizing the efforts of engineers and artists. They will collaborate on the placement and design of multi-modal pathways, benches, lights and other fixtures.

Schumm highlighted the value of this approach: “The art itself will be infused at the time the project is constructed, not added after...we’ll actually build with art in mind.” This means the public art will complement the rest of the additions, and the result should be a more cohesive and seemingly natural aesthetic effect.

The Lawrence Arts Center recently held a public meeting for citizens to hear about the process for attracting interested artists and contractors for the project. This sort of inclusiveness is built in, and it allows everyone —especially residents who live in the area — to have their say.

Susan Tate, CEO of the Arts Center, strongly emphasizes that dimension of the project: “We are committed to it being a process that has community engagement from beginning to end.” Public meetings are planned from November through next May.

Tate also insists that this isn’t a process of “revitalization,” a word she takes issue with, “It’s not an area that needs to be ‘revitalized,’” she said. “We want a plan that retains the vibrancy and character of the neighborhood.”

From an exciting, uncommon vision to the frequent involvement of all stakeholders and a deep respect for their concerns, this initiative may become a model for how public art and cultural urban planning work should be done.