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'A city can only go so far with brick buildings.' Why East Lansing has a focus on public art

EAST LANSING – Bright green, 12-foot blades of grass curve toward the sky, providing a pop of color on dreary days.

"Lemon Grass," as the curling strips are titled, is Holt-based artist Dane Porter's "cherry on top" of East Lansing's Valley Court Park. 

"A city can only go so far with brick buildings," Porter said. 

The $50,000 sculpture is Karen Jennings' favorite piece of art that's resulted from the city's Percent for Art program.

"I love that piece. I think it’s bright, it’s unique," Jennings, who has served on the city's Arts Commission for three years, said of Lemon Grass. "I’ve been by it in all different sorts of weather … and it always looks good." 

It's also the first piece of art officials purchased using public art fund dollars. Under a city ordinance, developers of new construction projects costing more than $500,000 can donate to that fund or incorporate art into their project. 

About a dozen other pieces have gone up as developers have chosen to install art rather than donate. 

14 pieces of art installed or proposed

Developers are pretty evenly split when deciding whether to donate to the fund or install public art, according to Wendy Wilmers Longpre, the city's assistant director of parks and recreation. 

Eight have donated $25,000, the maximum amount required under the program that started in 2014. 

Another nine developers have commissioned a sculpture, mural or painting. Five others intend to do so, but haven't yet. 

Pieces installed to comply with the ordinance, Longpre said, must be original works that meet a financial threshold. They also must be placed in a public space.  

Some developers simply don't think that kind of undertaking, or art in general, is in their wheelhouse, Longpre said. 

Arts commission members do offer input on design and placement, she said, and city staff can help developers find an artist. 

"Those who do choose the artwork are generally doing that because they see the benefit," she said. 

Like Core Spaces, which commissioned two murals for The Hub on Campus. 

That developer brought in Chicago-based artist Joe Miller to liven up what would otherwise be neutral-colored walls. 

"After working with our architects to design the Hub, we felt that further activating the street level of the building with public art would enhance the pedestrian experience at the property," said Andrew Wiedner, Core Spaces' chief acquisitions officer. "So many residents of the neighborhood pass by the property each day, and the murals are a great addition to the streetscape."

Public art activates spaces, makes an area more attractive and creates conversation, Longpre said, comparing it to "hanging a piece of art in your home." 

It also helps create a sense of space and identity, she said. 

Surprise can also be an element of public art, Jennings added, especially when people come "across something in an obscure spot." 

Porter lauded East Lansing for putting an emphasis on public art.  

"I think every city should have public art," he said. "It just kind of really finishes off the city and adds something unique to it." 

East Lansing's program, officials said, has an added benefit. 

Funds from developers make purchasing art easier, Longpre said, adding that's "always been something we needed to raise funds for." 

'Always something we need to raise funds for'

"Art is expensive," Jennings said. "Having the developers contribute to an art fund is, I think, a great way to keep money in the coffer so we can continue to bring new art to the city." 

There's another upcoming opportunity for that, and it's one people can attend. 

Artist Keith Secola's exhibit at Scene Metro Space, which starts with a demonstration at 5 p.m. Friday and reception shortly after, is a collaboration between Michigan State University and the arts commission.