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Transportation Construction and Public Art

Transportation Construction and Public Art


What becomes public art?

September 8, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY – When Debby Williams sees a piece of art in the public sphere, she doesn’t just notice its visual appeal. She also sees economic development, business incentives, quality of life and educational opportunities.

Williams is the director of Art in Public Places, a program operated through the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Arts Council. The program was launched after the 2004 passage of a Senate bill that requires artwork to be incorporated in or near new state office buildings or those undergoing major renovations costing $250,000 or more. The bill stipulates that 1.5 percent of the construction budget be allocated for artwork. In those statues, sculptures and monoliths, Williams sees all sorts of potential.

“The idea is to enhance the site and make it a better experience for people who work in the building, live around the building and visit the building,” she said. “Public art is just that – public. There is no cost to see it, and it makes a huge difference in an environment. And when people outside Oklahoma are looking to relocate their businesses here, they are looking for a nice environment, and public art can help create that.”

Artwork has been completed at several state buildings, including the new state Banking Department facility and an addition to the Department of Agriculture, both on Lincoln Boulevard. Twenty projects around the state are in development, Williams said, including several non-state entities that aren’t required but want to be a part of the process.

To begin the process of a public piece of art, a committee is formed of people who work in the building, live nearby, architects who designed the building and others. Williams said committee members collaborate to choose an artistic design and an artist, so that a piece of artwork isn’t simply installed, along with a mandate for it to be enjoyed. The result is an increased sense of pride and ownership, she said.

Terry Peach, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, recently led his agency through the construction of an additional laboratory and the requisite artwork. The result is an outdoor plaza with monoliths carved in granite and an accompanying sculpture. The design reflects the work of the department, from livestock to crops to a larger-than-life plow.

As the steward of a state organization, Peach said he initially didn’t warm to the artwork requirement. But as the planning process began and the design came to life, he said he gained a belief in the project.

“I was concerned initially with the additional cost,” Peach said. “But I think if you are thoughtful in your utilization of the money, it’s fine. Our new plaza is a pleasant environment for our employees, and we feel like it has actually increased employee performance.”

It’s not unusual to hear occasional negative public comments about the superfluousness of art, Williams said, but for less than 2 percent of the construction cost, people are getting a lot of artistic bang for their buck. States like New Mexico and Arizona are seeing an increase in tourism and economic development because of their incorporation of art, Williams said. Her goal is to help Oklahoma do the same.

Art in Public Places comes with additional educational and mentoring components. For every public art project, a curriculum is designed for teachers to use in their classrooms, Williams said. The lesson plans cover the history of a piece, especially as it relates to Oklahoma, as well as the science that goes into a bronze statue or the math required to build a tall sculpture.

A mentoring program teaches Oklahoma artists how to work within the public art process, Williams said. Creating a piece of public artwork is different than working on a private commission because of the collaboration and budgetary guidelines, she said. Artists from other states are working with Oklahoma artists to move into that realm.

Although the law applies only to state agencies, others are using Art in Public Places to bring artwork to their facilities: wing-like steel sculptures at St. Anthony’s Hospital, whimsical pieces on the Educare façade and, perhaps most noticeably, artwork on Oklahoma’s bridges and interstates.

Terri Angier, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, has seen her agency design stampeding buffaloes along I-235, scissortail flycatchers on an I-35 bridge and other decorative elements. When considering designs that will be seen by at least 100,000 drivers every day, the approach is a bit different, she said.

“We have to consider the type of art aesthetic,” Angier said. “It still has to be extremely safe for driving, so we’re not going to do something that’s so attention-getting, that requires reading or otherwise gets your attention off the road.”

The expense of using artwork in a transportation project is included in the initial budget, she said. For example, the cost of the I-235 buffalo wall was about $400,000, but that barrier wall would have been erected anyway, so the addition of artistic elements was a justifiable expense, she said.

“It’s the same with bridges – a lot of them are using geometric shapes anyway, so we still have to pay for the form liner,” she said. “So it’s not a lot of additional cost.”

Breaking it down

Senate Bill 1347 established the “State of Oklahoma: Art in Public Places Act.” The program receives no state appropriation, but works within the 1.5 percent of a construction budget required for artwork in new state buildings or renovations.

Of that 1.5 percent:

• 80 percent goes for the artist selection and commission.

• 10 percent is used for ongoing maintenance of the artwork and a core curriculum available to teachers.

• 10 percent goes toward administering the program.

For more information about Art in Public Places, call Debby Williams, director, at (405) 522-8959, or visit

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