Art for All: Meet the Columbus-based firm creating Fort Wayne’s inclusive Public Art Master Plan
By Kara Hackett | Input Fort Wayne
Chicago has “The Bean.” Wall Street has the Charging Bull (and Fearless Girl). They’re pieces of public art that give places a compelling sense of identity and distinct point of interest.
But how do cities lay the groundwork for such iconic creative expressions that set them apart and feel authentic to their culture?
That’s the question a cultural planning firm called Designing Local has been answering since 2014.
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Designing Local has been carving out a niche for itself in the world of urban planning, helping cities across the country draw out locally-unique attributes and translate them into their built environments—whether it’s through public art, historic preservation, landscape architecture, or city branding.
They’ve done everything from selecting artists for a permanent art installation in Merriam, Kansas, to creating a Placemaking Plan for Cape May County, New Jersey.
“We do a little bit of everything, but it always revolves around culture,” says Josh Lapp, one of Designing Local’s founding members. “It’s about enhancing the unique characteristics that define communities, and at the end of the day, that’s about economic development more than anything else.”
In 2018, Designing Local was chosen by Fort Wayne’s new Public Art Commission to help them develop the city’s first Public Art Master Plan with a focus on inclusivity, or “Art for All” as its new website says. That involves identifying opportunities for public art not only in downtown Fort Wayne, but also in the city's neighborhoods.
So what attributes make Fort Wayne unique, and what will a Public Art Master Plan look like here?
Input Fort Wayne sat down with Amanda Golden and Josh Lapp of Designing Local to find out.
IFW: Designing Local is one of the few firms in the country that specializes in creating Public Art Master Plans. Tell us how you got started.
JL: Amanda and I had gone to college together, and about five years ago, we were looking to do something different—something unique. She’s a Certified Creative Placemaker, and I’m a City Planner who has extensive professional experience in real estate development and design review.
We had both worked for more traditional planning firms out of college, and we started talking about doing something that was focused on reaching people in different ways and doing interesting projects to boost people’s attachment to place.
So in 2014, we started Designing Local, and our first project was a Public Art Master Plan in Duluth, Georgia. It’s really taken off from there.
IFW: Today, you do cultural planning work in cities across the country. What are some of the benefits of helping cities identify unique aspects of their culture, as an outsider to that culture?
JL: It’s very difficult for us to work in our own city, and say, “What are the defining qualities of this place?” We live there and experience it every day, so it’s harder for us to step back and get that vision. But it’s a lot easier for us to walk into another city, and say, “We work all over the place, and we can tell you that this definitely is something that’s unique about your community.”
AG: In a new community, we’re also able to ask for forgiveness and kind of push through some of those political boundaries that exist without knowing it, so we’re not doing something wrong. Whereas, if we were in our own city, we can’t push through some of those same boundaries because then we’re expending our own political capital for a project.
IFW: Practically speaking, what does a Public Art Master Plan look like in Fort Wayne?
JL: A Public Art Master Plan typically revolves around whatever is needed in a community. In Fort Wayne, this is a new program, but there has already been a lot of work done around developing guidelines and the funding mechanism for public art. What we’re doing is operationalizing the program.
Once we receive public input, we will work on identifying some specific locations where public art should be located in the future.
Fort Wayne is actually, geographically, a very large city, so we’ll identify an area—an underpass, or a median, or a bike trail—and say, “This is how to address that area in terms of public art.”
AG: It’s about identifying types of art and locations—not specific artists. Choosing the artists is the role of the city’s Public Art Commission.
Once the plan is adopted, the commission will say, “Ok, we know we want a piece of art in X location.” Then, they’ll put a call out for artists to respond, and there’s a democratic process for that to follow.
One of the things the commission is really intentional about not doing is soliciting ideas from artist before they’re able to pay artists for their ideas. That’s very important. They want to be able to pay for those ideas and be really intentional about what they’re doing.
IFW: Tell us, why is it important for cities to have a Public Art Commission to carry out this kind of work in cities?
AG: Having a commission insulates elected officials from being the decisionmakers on public art, and that’s the purpose of commissions in all contexts, but it’s specifically important with the public art.
JL: Art shouldn’t be a political decision. Our goal is to ensure fiscal accountability—particularly in this community that is very thoughtful in the way it spends money. We want to ensure that dollars are being spent on things that are acquired in a really efficient and defensible process that allows for public input, but also for artistic creativity.
We don’t want to stifle anything. This is not art-by-committee. In fact, it’s the opposite of that. We want to enable artistic integrity, but also defend the public interest.
IFW: When you’re working in cities across the country, how do you identify those unique cultural attributes that attract people to cities?
AG: We believe that we don’t know anything when we’re coming into a community. We know the best practices and baseline trends of what’s going on. But the community is really the experts in what’s special about them, so we spend a lot of time asking people what’s unique about them.
We ask people to submit words, phrases, colors, sounds, smells, songs—anything that they think is unique to them that can help support our understanding of the essence of who they are.
From there, we take all of those attributes and boil them down into something that’s digestible.
We develop what we like to call a Community Character Framework, so when somebody from outside of the city we’re working in is creating something for that place, they have a reference that was created by the people who live there.
JL: In the design fields, you might call it a creative brief. It’s something that really helps give a picture of the community.
The unique characteristic of a community should be displayed in everything it does. Public art is just one piece of that.
IFW: You’re still in the “discovery phase” of your work in Fort Wayne. But what has stood out to you so far?
JL: There’s an upward trajectory here; There’s momentum. There’s a feeling that Fort Wayne is at a really good place, and has seen some paradigm shifts, and it feels like it is allowed to like itself.
AG: Coming in from Columbus and not being from the Midwest, originally, I had no idea of what to expect in Fort Wayne. But I think all the restaurants, coffee shops, and bars we’ve gone to, all the murals, everything we’ve experienced so far is really awesome, and not what I might have expected, which is great.
I think other people would have that same feeling if they stepped into Fort Wayne. They’d be like, “Huh?”
The murals downtown are fantastic. I post on Instagram a lot, and when we were here last winter, people were sending me messages, saying: “Where is this? Can I go see it?”
People were really impressed by it.
JL: I love the Breathe mural. I actually made it the background on my phone for a while.
IFW: So what’s next? How can people get involved and provide some input on the Public Art Master Plan?
AG: After this discovery phase is done, we’ll be going out and getting the community input. That’s happening in all four quadrants of the city and downtown, so there will be identical meetings happening in all five locations.
At these meetings, we’re really going to be asking the public what their vision or public art may be. It may be that we ask two questions: What is your vision for public art in downtown Fort Wayne? And what is your vision for public art in your neighborhood?
We’re also doing an educational component of the engagement. We find that if people feel like they don’t know much about public art, then they don’t answer the questions we ask about it.
IFW: That’s good to hear. What will the educational opportunities look like?
AG: We’re doing two different educational opportunities. The first one will be on March 26th, and it’s what’s called a PechaKucha (PK) event. It’s a series of six short presentations with 20 slides and 20 seconds per slides, amounting to six minutes per topic, per speaker.
This PK method is a really fantastic way to get a bunch of people to talk about whatever topic is on hand quickly. We’re going to host one with six local folks and a keynote speaker from outside of northeast Indiana. It will be about the power of public art.
JL: We’re going to have live music, beer, and make it a fun event so it doesn’t feel like a public meeting.
AG: That’s part of our methodology of educating folks, too. There’s a myth out there that art is only for the ultra-rich or for the upper echelon of society, and that is not true at all. We know that the artists who are creating work generally do not come from this upper echelon, so our process is very intentional about making sure this process is approachable and the topic is approachable and fun, and it’s art for all—not for some.
JL: We believe the best public art is naturally engaging with people. They don’t have to sit there and ponder it. Maybe they should. But they don’t have to. It speaks to people because it’s so fun and creative, and it’s something that people gravitate towards. It’s something that, if you wanted to stop people from taking selfies in front of, you couldn’t because people are so attracted to it.
Visit the Fort Wayne Public Art Master Plan’s website for more information and updates about public surveys.