Sam Neer

Galion artist Sam Neer admires one of his three murals installed at the corner of Main and Third Streets. 

Editor's Note: This story is part of a month-long series that highlights 31 ideas included in the "Mansfield Rising" plan. The 67-page document was created by 15 local leaders after attending the South by Southwest Conference last March in Austin, Texas.

Idea 28: Commission local artists & engage the citizenry through interactive experiences

Participation in the arts connects communities in ways that otherwise cannot be reached. The arts transcend barriers of social class and ethnicity, with 80 percent of the city’s residents traveling to new neighborhoods to take part in arts activities.

One Philadelphia study revealed 40 percent of its participants identified feeling a dramatic change in their positive associations with their community after taking part in the arts activities afforded to them.

Communities that invest in the arts have made a commitment to fostering a healthy social culture that values citizens’ intellectual and emotional nourishment and creates a sense of belonging and well-being above and beyond fulfilling basic needs.

Local artists should be commissioned for murals, sculptures, and other public exhibits; in particular, displays that highlight the work of an artist in a central location and can showcase local talent on a revolving basis. This can be used as an engagement tool for the community to regularly come together for shared experiences, including local food, drinks, and music.

To best identify priority projects and locations, crafting a public art policy will be critical in achieving this action item. Columbus-based firm Designing Local could be a potential partner in this work. The firm specializes in creating locally-remarkable cultural, historic, and aspirational designs and plans. It recently completed work on a successful Public Art Policy for Sandusky.

Works by nationally- and internationally-renowned artists should also be considered to draw interest and visitors to Mansfield. Public installations bring together diverse groups of people, thereby encouraging dialogue and understanding across typical boundaries and perceived barriers.

This method has been used successfully in several cities, including Buffalo, where the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Public Art Initiative regularly presents artists from around the region, nation, and world, and contributes to a “shared sense of place and cultural identity."

Public art should not be the sole responsibility of professional artists, however, projects that show broad community participation are more likely to create lasting, positive change because the community has played a role in identifying needs, formulating solutions, and owning the result.

These initiatives often range from small- to large-scale projects, but for the immediate purposes of reaching this goal and fulfilling a need to engage the community in public art, a competition should be held to collect innovative designs of commonplace public infrastructure elements.

Examples of potential design projects may include benches, sidewalks, and bus stops. Vacant and underutilized lots and buildings present another opportunity, as these can set the scene for re-imagined community development by transforming formerly untapped sites into creative spaces, drawing in both artists and non-artists.

Using the spaces as a “blank canvas,” community members will collaborate to create a work of public art that not only celebrates the culture of the city, but also spotlights the potential of typically unwanted spaces. In this way, a wealth of undervalued assets in the city of Mansfield can be used as a catalyst to change the city’s perception of itself and engage a diverse community.

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A model program of this nature is the Artist in Vacancy Program (Newburgh, New York), which features creative interactive art installations on vacant lots throughout the city. If recreated in Mansfield, the Richland County Land Bank could potentially serve as a prime partner in this endeavor.

Engaging the citizenry through interactive experiences could be accomplished by developing a variation of Wander ATX that is specific to the place and heritage of Mansfield.

Wander ATX is a literary adventure that leads users to discover new and interesting spots in Austin, TX. The Mansfield version would provide a new way to interact with the city.

Local authors would be commissioned to write a series of unrelated fictional stories similar to the choose-your-own adventure stories popular in the 1980s.

A central starting point would need to be established from which each story starts. The user would select a story arc to follow and would be guided through the city based on the decisions they make at the end of each section.

The story does not necessarily have to be connected to the location, but some reference to it in the story could help pique the user’s interest. Each location would also have a separate page to explain its importance independent of the story arc.

Numerous ways to explore the city are presented in each story arc. This is multiplied by the number of story arcs available. It is also scalable as new stories and locations are added.

A lighter, quicker, cheaper version is to follow the lead of Jacksonville, Florida. Their initiative was dubbed “Explore the More.”

Information was typed inside bubbles in the form of window clings and displayed in storefronts, both in use and vacant, as well as sidewalks and parking meters. The information provided in each bubble was designed for individuals to embark on a type of scavenger hunt to learn the story of downtown Jacksonville.

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