City leaders discuss public art ideas

A former mural on the back of the Empsall Building. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Painting murals on downtown buildings. Closing off one side of Public Square. Strategic placement of sculptures around downtown.

These were some of the ideas for public art in the city that members of Advantage Watertown, a group of business and community leaders who meet monthly to discuss city issues, came up with during a brainstorming session on Thursday.

They shared their ideas for “low-hanging fruit” that can be easily accomplished; “pie in the sky” things that would take time to get done; and “pet projects,” ideas that they’ve always liked to see be done in Watertown.

Sixteen members of the group took their turns during the round-robin conversation of what they’d like the city pursue.

Dr. Jason White, Advantage Watertown’s chairman, organized the 90-minute discussion about public art — and its importance to a community.

“We can build consensus of what we can do here,” he told the group.

He mentioned several examples of public art in other communities, such as large plastic lobster sculptures placed around Plymouth, Mass.; artsy bike racks in Toronto; and an array of white lights put up in an outdoor cafe in an alleyway in Kingston.

The subject of public art has gained steam in recent years after the city received some funding for the purpose in its $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative in 2017.

Over the years, Dr. White has gotten the group to brainstorm on other city subjects that ended up coming to fruition, such as restaurants opening outdoor cafes along Public Square.

During Thursday’s conversation, many in the group suggested murals on specific downtown buildings, along a wall in Veterans Memorial Walkway overlooking the Black River and other locales around the city.

But Advantage Watertown member Brian Ashley cautioned not everyone liked a former three-story mural on a J.B. Wise Place building that supposedly symbolized Watertown’s association with Fort Drum. The mural showing two soldiers near a river with an orange sun blazing in the background was painted over last year.

To avoid a situation like that, another member, Steven Hunt, recommended that “someone who knows what they’re doing” be involved in any future mural work,

Instead of painting murals on buildings, maybe they can be displayed digitally, Mr. Ashley said. That way the North Country Goes Green Irish Festival or other events can be promoted during the year, he explained.

Senior City Planner Jennifer Voss said she would like to see strings of lights put up in alleyways to make it safer for people who walk through them.

She’d also like to see a mural be painted on the Stone Street side of the Key Bank because it doesn’t have any windows.

Mr. Ashley also suggested that the city work on finding a discarded drinking fountain for horses that sat in Public Square in the early part of the 20th century.

Parts of the granite and marble fountain are now unceremoniously piled up near the Thompson Park zoo.

“They’re just sitting up there somewhere near the zoo,” he said.

As part of its $10 million DRI grant, the city received $155,000 for public art under the program. Funding will go toward partnering with local arts organizations to develop a group of sculpture projects throughout the downtown and waterfront area.

Former Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. also successfully lobbied for DRI funding to make improvements to a fountain on Public Square, Dr. White said.

Some of the group said they wished that one side of Public Square would someday be closed off to traffic, although they acknowledged the idea was shot down by merchants when it was proposed during the DRI process in 2018.

After the meeting, Michael A. Lumbis, the city’s planning and community development director, said these kinds of brainstorming sessions are beneficial.

“The city is always looking for good ideas that could be implemented downtown,” he said.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(1) comment


"Not to mince words or anything, but I hate public murals."

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