With projects in London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Miami, Las Vegas, Montreal, Los Angeles, and other metropolises around the world, Douglas de Castro and Renato Perreira’s large mural overlooking the patio of A.J.’s New York Pizzeria on Poyntz might seem out of place in Manhattan, Kansas. But sense of place is exactly why Incite MHK, a local group of six individuals focused on moving Manhattan forward through community art installations, chose the Brazilian team called Bicicleta Sem Freio, or Bicycle Without Brakes, for its first project. Funded by a $30,000 grant from the Greater Manhattan Community Foundation’s Deihl Community Grants Program, Incite MHK hopes that high-impact art installations will change the way locals and visitors see Manhattan.
“Our ultimate goal is to make Manhattan an even more vibrant, creative, magnetic, fun town to live in,” said Jeff Sackrider, one of the members behind Incite MHK. “We want people to get out of their cars. Slow down. Enjoy this town. Our hope is that we can incite others to want the same things and go out and do them when they see what we have done.”
While the mural over AJ’s is Incite MHK’s first project, the group hopes to create an annual event around a high-profile installation while embarking on other community art projects year-round. The driving force behind this endeavor is to increase Manhattan’s overall quality of place—and the quality of life for its residents—by rehabilitating undesirable uses of space, such as the unused wall at AJ’s, and by creating spectacular environments.
Incite MHK’s installation came about via a partnership with Charlotte Dutoit, the founder of Justkids global creative house. Justkids works with cities, architects, developers and community organizations to develop quality of place with public art experiences. The shared vision of quality placemaking between Incite MHK and Justkids provided a strategic focus for the work, which the group hopes will affect community perspectives on place in Manhattan.
Dutoit explains, “Creating public and community art add uniqueness to a place, people start to look at their neighborhood in a different way, they rediscover buildings and places. It attracts investment, tourism, increases the property value and revenue, but also the cultural and social capital.”
The idea of using public art to drive placemaking is not new, as anyone who’s taken a selfie by Chicago’s Cloud Gate, often called the “Bean,” or the Urban Light assemblage outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but the opportunities to change the quality of place in smaller communities is particularly attractive to Dutoit: “Small-scale communities are much more welcoming in general as they mostly don’t have large scale art so their community and residents are more receptive to it. In big cities, art in the public realm is more common but in a smaller town, it can really make a difference. And whether some people like the artworks and others don’t, it usually starts a conversation about the place they want to live in.”
These conversations about quality of place and the opportunities available to community members aren’t only for community benefit; with a tight labor market and high competition for a competitive workforce, investments in quality of place, such as art installations, are economic development activities. Dutoit agrees: “I have worked and curated public art for long term planning programs in different cities where art plays a prominent role. Downtown Las Vegas, Shoreditch in East London, or, on a smaller scale and not too far from here, Downtown Fort Smith in Arkansas are perfect examples of communities who embraced art as a catalyst for their economic development and have generated significant results and major changes.”
Dutoit’s work in Fort Smith, Arkansas is perhaps the most encouraging for a community like Manhattan. Lacking in the economic resources of communities like Las Vegas, London or Chicago, in 2015 a group in Fort Smith called 64.6 Downtown hired Justkids to curate six installations around their historic but economically depressed downtown area and Bicicleta Sem Freio was one of the first artists in what has grown into a year-round show called The Unexpected. Today, 64.6 Downtown describes itself as “a catalyst for economic development in downtown Fort Smith through property development, creative place-making, arts, and events,” and has successfully brought life back to Fort Smith’s historic downtown.
Reflecting on this model, Dutoit says that “commissioning a large scale artwork for the community is a good investment for everyone to enjoy. It’s beneficial for the community, making it safer, healthier and more fun to live. However, it should be accompanied and supported by other initiatives of community development, and ideally planned over a few years.” With one world-class installation complete, Manhattan must now consider what other placemaking activities must occur for community-wide economic development and when community leadership will fully appreciate and prioritize this important work.
Josh Brewer is the agency marketing director at 502, a strategic marketing agency in Manhattan, Kansas. For more information on Incite MHK visit www.InciteMHK.org.