Ann Arbor has figured out a way to make the mundane beautiful while also supporting local artists.

How? By wrapping up drab traffic signal boxes in vinyl reproductions of locally produced artworks.

“They’re so pretty, but it also really makes the ones that aren’t decorated stick out more,” said Allison Buck, program director of The Arts Alliance, which proposed and oversees the project. “When you walk past a plain one, you think, ‘What about that one? And that one? Those should have art on them, too.’”

PowerArtL to R: "Legato," Sophia Adeline Zhou; "People in the City," Xiang Li; and "Pedestrian," Tim Gralewski. Photos by Allison Buck, courtesy of The Arts Alliance.Phase two of Ann Arbor’s proposed three-phase public art initiative, called PowerArt!, ended in mid-July, covering 17 more signal boxes in artworks that were selected by a local jury composed of artists and community leaders (13), or by public online voting (4). The artists whose work was selected for PowerArt!’s second phase are: David Zinn, Tim Gralewski, Cathy Jacobs, Xiang Li, Thomas Rosenbaum, Bruce Worden, Sophia Adalaine Zhou, Parisa Ghaderi, K.A. Letts, Nawal Motawi, Mia Risberg, Bryan Oxender, Yiyi Zhang, Katharine Downie, Walter Griggs, Leslie Sobel, and Jill Stefanie Wagner. (Zinn, Rosenbaum, Zhou, and Letts had work selected for PowerArt!’s first phase as well.)

PowerArt!’s pilot phase began in May 2015, with eight boxes throughout downtown Ann Arbor receiving a makeover. Each PowerArt! artist—who must live, work, or attend school in Washtenaw County—received $1,450 per work. Organizers hope that in addition to highlighting local artists, the program will dissuade people from taping flyers to the boxes or tagging them with graffiti. 

“Having hung out in Ann Arbor as long as I have, I have watched merchants walking to the boxes right outside their business and tearing down flyers,” said Deb Polich, executive director of The Arts Alliance. “And tagging is something the community doesn’t want. We’re not against graffiti artists if they’re in contact with a building’s owners, and they have permission to do something. But tagging is just vandalism.”

Back in 2013, when The Arts Alliance first submitted a PowerArt! proposal to the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, they presented Boise, ID as a town that had previously pursued a similar public art program: “According to Boise City Police Department monitoring, after installation there was a significant decrease in graffiti, even on boxes that were not wrapped in art,” The Arts Alliance wrote in its proposal.

Ann Arbor’s art-ified traffic signal boxes now have something in common with those in Seattle, Missoula, Toronto, Stamford (CT), Houston, Tampa, Olympia (WA), Augusta (GA) and more. 

That is not to say that the art installations have remained completely untouched.

Since PowerArt!’s introduction in May 2015, there have been two incidents of vandalism to the artworks. Xiang Li’s People in the City was torn off its box at First and Ashley shortly after being installed this summer—which takes some doing, given the strength of the adhesive (the DDA is replacing the print); and Zinn’s Selfie Monster was once tagged. But Arts Alliance representatives are quick to point out that one of the reasons for using the vinyl wraps is that they’re easy to clean.

Selfie Monster was actually cleaned up by members of the community before we or city staff could get down there with cleaning supplies,” said Buck. “That’s how much the community loves the installations.”

Starry Sky Jacobs with SummersKnoll CampersArtist Cathy Jacobs showing her piece "Starry Sky" to Summers-Knoll summer campers. Photo by Allison Buck, courtesy of The Arts Alliance.Now, with 25 PowerArt! pieces throughout Ann Arbor, The Arts Alliance, working in collaboration with the DDA and Public Art Commission—needs to raise an additional $25,000 for PowerArt!’s third and final phase, which involves putting art on 17 more signal boxes, thus bringing the final projected total to 42.

“Round three starts as soon as we raise the money,” said Polich, who noted that sponsorships are available for $1,000 each, and may include the name of the person or organization on a strip banner at the top of a signal box for as long as the art lasts (an estimated five years or longer). “It’s a cool way to be associated with a fun project that’s really been embraced by the community.”

Following the pilot phase, Ann Arbor’s DDA committed $50,000 to the project, and PowerArt! landed a $22,500 grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA), plus $38,000 from private and public sources.

But in regard to the project’s funding, Polich is quick to add that the grant money received for PowerArt! “is not supplanting funds for police or the fire department or road maintenance. The money we get is not available for those things because of the restrictions put on different pots of funds.”

PowerArt!’s pilot phase got the community’s attention in a big way, so not only did more artists respond when The Arts Alliance put out a call for phase two, but also about three times as many people voted online for their favorite “finalist” submissions.

However, creating original art for installation on power boxes is no small task. For each individual box, an artist has had to solve the tricky problem of thinking of a design that will work on four sides, and look good when it’s possibly blown up to be five feet tall.

“That’s one of the things about public art,” said Polich. “Artists do this kind of thing all the time. They have to problem-solve when they’re given parameters to work within. … It takes creative thinking from creative people.”

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