Julia Dixon | Creativity at Work: Do we know an asset when we see it?

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Editor's note: This article was updated on July 27, 2017, to correct the name of the overpass under which the painted columns are located. The bridge is the Veterans Memorial Bridge, not the Sacco Bridge

NORTH ADAMS — Joni Mitchell wrote "don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone," in the late 1960s. This sentiment is an axiom that seems to ring truer as human history wears on. It can also be applied to many things we tend to take for granted in our day-to-day lives including our health, safety, family, and freedoms.

But art?

Unfortunately, many works of art — even artists themselves — don't achieve recognition until they are jeopardized, inaccessible, or destroyed. Musicians, actors, and writers that leave the industry or leave us for good are not simply revered for their body of work, but mourned for what they will no longer produce.

Visual artworks such as paintings and drawings tend to be born quietly and strive to be appreciated and nurtured throughout their lives, only occasionally seeing real fame and fortune. If they're lucky, they are displayed in a museum for others to enjoy or are preserved in the solitude of a private collection.

Until they're gone, that is.

Norman Rockwell's paintings are lucky enough to be owned by collectors and museums throughout the country, as well as housed in a museum devoted exclusively to his life and work right here in Berkshire County. However, when the Berkshire Museum announced that it will be selling two of their Rockwells, plus 38 other artworks in its collection in an effort to finance a bold and sustainable $60 million "reinvention plan," many residents expressed frustration and anger over the loss.

In May, North Adams residents felt the loss of their own work of art by way of a museum. The Community Art Mural Project, a series of historical paintings of Arnold Printworks child workers and cloth dolls installed five years ago by students on the pillars underneath Route 2's Veterans Memorial Bridge, had been painted over by the city's keeper of contemporary art: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum, however, was restoring its own public art installation. Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger's Harmonic Bridge, a purposefully subtle sound installation of quotidian tones in the key of C, was installed in 1998 — an installation that included the painting of the same pillars in a very specific shade of gray. Both artworks draw attention to the city, but in different ways.

The North Adams case has been an interesting demonstration of the power of authority, due to the sheer absence of it. However, as the negative responses to Berkshire Museum's forthcoming auction plans reveals, the public's valuation of an artwork is just as meaningful as any institution's responsible, rightful financial or restoration decision. Perhaps what's more interesting to me is how both of these controversies have demonstrated the power these artworks have in their absence.

The Arnold Printworks murals and Norman Rockwell paintings have become symbols of something bigger. Their loss reflects a greater loss, a loss of history and industry and identity that the community is still mourning. For some community members, the educational and intellectual gains offered by new creative projects should not come at the expense of an emotional or cultural asset. At the same time, residents support projects and artworks that acknowledge their values and history, and they want Mass MoCA and the Berkshire Museum to be catalysts for this kind of creative place making.

But do we know when assets are assets? To the untrained or uninterested, historical artworks can be perceived as static and obsolete, even if they are documenting a history that is intrinsically linked to a region. Public art, on the other hand, has more in common with the performing arts than traditional fine art disciplines. Public art is not only experienced as a product but also as a time-based practice that is created and consumed en masse. The unveiling of these works is thrilling, but like many songs and movies, the thrill can give way to overfamiliarity or underappreciation.

Perhaps without realizing it, Mass MoCA and the Berkshire Museum redirected our attention to these assets unknowingly. Thanks to the uncertain fate of these works, the community is engaged in discussion about values and vision. Residents are posing questions and offering opinions. These paintings transcended all qualities of their objecthood and became vehicles of sentiment. This is the transformative power of the arts.

Art matters, but it sometimes matters in a different way than administrators or curators, even artists themselves, intend. This is because the value and meaning of an artwork is ultimately assigned by the people, whether on a cement sidewalk or in a marble-floored gallery.

A former creative economy specialist for 1Berkshire, Julia Dixon is chair of the North Adams Public Art Commission, and a creative economy consultant, entrepreneur and visual artist.


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