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The Art of Urban Renewal

Living Walls: Albany harnesses the talents of international street artists to brighten Albany neighborhoods, one mural at a time

by Josh Potter on September 15, 2011 · 2 comments

In the past two weeks, they started appearing around town. A council of penguins on Sheridan Avenue. A giant crow on Lexington. A gold chain hangs from two blown-out windows. A man holds his hands overhead, pleading toward the sky.

“Imagine a 10-year-old kid walking around the corner to his house and looking up to see this thing that has never been there before,” says Samson Contompasis, owner of Albany’s Marketplace Gallery and organizer of Living Walls: Albany, a city-wide public art project and symposium on urban renewal. “It could be the first moment that he realizes art is an option for him, if he embraces his own creativity.”

The walls are alive: One of OverUnder's murals. Photo by Julia Zave.

He’s thumbing through a stack of manila folders on the steps of St. Joseph’s Church, a staging area and work space for many of the project’s local, national and international artists, sorting the mock-ups of approved projects from those that had fallen through. “Ah, it breaks my heart that this one is never going to exist,” he says closing one folder and reaching to answer his cell phone. With artists flying in from Belgium, Peru, Miami and Minnesota, it will ring seven times in the next hour.

The premise of the project is simple: Draw attention to Albany’s crumbling architecture and underserved neighborhoods through a massive display of public art, returning dignity and pride to those who live there, thus opening the conversation about what urban renewal and livability look like. “It’s not just putting paint on walls,” he says. “It’s helping the people of this city engage with the city. Nobody’s inspired watching its decay for the last 40 years. Little things can change people’s lives, down to just colors. It’s bringing attention to areas that need another chance.”

The project’s execution, though, has been more complicated. It’s taken Contompasis upwards of 10 months to book in-demand street artists like ROA, Gaia, Broken Crow, OverUnder and Joe Iurato, fundraise to fly them in (every participant is working on a volunteer basis), coordinate the event’s performance-art component with Meghan Van Alstyne of Brooklyn’s Grace Space and lecture series with James Shultis of Grand Street Community Arts, obtain legal rights to the walls and properties that will serve as the artists’ canvasses and defend the projects’ intentions against those who are quick to view the murals as little more than glorified graffiti. On the same day that Contompasis hung veteran street artist Chris Stains’ 9/11 tribute mural (a 40-by-16-foot piece of paneled plywood, constructed inside St. Joseph’s) in the New York State Museum’s exhibit Reflecting on September 11, 2001, the city’s Historic Resources Commission denied the project access to over a dozen properties within historic neighborhoods. At last count, Living Walls was operating with 16 walls—having lost a total of 24.

“You have to view things like this like a war,” says Contompasis, “in the sense that you are going to have a severe number of battles that you are going to wage.” The scope and success of the project to Contompasis, though, has less to do with the size and quantity of the murals he constructs but the breadth of audience he engages. “If we had one mural done,” he says, gesturing toward downtown Albany, “we still accomplished our goal with Living Walls because every person that drives by that mural is going to have something new.”

 

A roadkilled squirrel lies tenderly agape on a cardboard box amid paint buckets and aeresol cans. On the wall overhead, acclaimed Belgian street artist ROA, known for his large-scale and region-specific animal murals, is perched on a hydraulic lift, tracing the rodent’s contour against an otherwise forgettable brick wall off Sheridan Avenue. Although slightly morbid, the symbolism is fitting. A nuisance animal memorialized in a nuisance neighborhood. The level of detail becomes staggering as he gives the fur texture, the spectacle becoming more pronounced in relation to the disrepair that surrounds it. It’s hard to see how the attention of ROA’s international audience to this piece in Arbor Hill could result in the neighborhood one day gaining basic amenities like a grocery store, shedding negligent absentee landlords or stimulating the growth of small businesses, but this is the logical extension of the Living Walls mission—the notion that public art is a primary catalyst for urban renewal.

“If you did simple things like get people into this area, they’ll invest in the community,” says Contompasis. “[The art is] going to get people into communities they’d never go because of bad stigmas. Art is meant to change and help you open yourself to new things. Public art is just more visible.”

Samson Contompasis. Photo by Julia Zave.

The project has its roots in Atlanta in 2010, where Monica Campana started Living Walls as a way to engage neighborhoods that were falling prey to encroaching large-scale advertising. Art was to serve as the antidote to prefab images and sloganeering and return agency to residents to shape their visual—and by extension, mental and social—environment. Contompasis met Campana through art events in New York City and adopted the Living Walls: Atlanta model for Living Walls: Albany, tailoring the mission to suit the peculiar challenges of our mid-sized city.

“We’re letting the artists use the intrinsic value of their work to let the rest of the world engage Albany,” Contompasis says. “To make it realize that there’s a lot more going on than just us screwing up the state budget.”

The prospect of a large-scale, city-wide mural project is not unprecedented in Albany. In the ’70s, artist/entrepreneur Roxanne Storms was part of a similar project with the support of the city. Although most of that work has since been painted over or gone down with demolished buildings, the peeling remnants of one mural remain—the cyclist on the corner of Washington Avenue and Henry Johnson Boulevard. A similar project was undertaken in 1995 at Rensselaer’s Riverfront Park by none other than Contompasis’ mother.

Ironically, it’s the legacy of the Albany project—undertaken before both “street art” and “graffiti” had entered the public lexicon—that has served as one of Contompasis’ largest stumbling blocks. With the permission of a landlord who owns upwards of 60 properties in the Arbor Hill and West Hill neighborhoods, Contompasis planned for murals on more than a dozen walls along Clinton Avenue. As this stretch falls within one of Albany’s many historic neighborhoods, additional legal permission was required from the city’s Historic Resources Commission.

As Rich Nicholson, senior planner at the Office of Land Use Planning and staff representative for the HRC, explains, the board is charged with the protection and preservation of properties with historic value. The issues they face can be as particular as the type of wood used to repair a window sash or as broad as questions of “fostering civic duty” in relation to a project like Living Walls. “What’s beautiful?” Nicholson asks rhetorically. “Obviously, art is a very subjective thing.”

Circle of architectural life: A piece by Broken Crow. Photo by Julia Zave.

Over the course of four months, Contompasis met with the HRC to discuss the project. “I had to convince nine members of this panel that contemporary art is a good idea for their districts,” he says. “Let me tell you, it is not an easy thing to do.” Some board members expressed concern over the subject matter of the murals, others stressed the issue of long-term maintenance and eventual removal. The mural project in the ’70s took place before the commission’s charter, so the board required that Contompasis be bonded for the murals’ upkeep to avoid them becoming degraded like the one on Henry Johnson. A draft of the bond was pending with the city at the time of the board’s final vote last week. With one member absent, Contompasis fell one vote shy of a majority opinion, resulting in denied access to the historic properties. Pointing to limited time the board had to consider concrete mural proposals, Nicholson wagered that “the members who voted against the project had reservations not objections” and that, as the project develops over subsequent years, Living Walls will eventually receive access to historic properties. “You’re working with an aesthetic project but there are legal ramifications,” he explains. “It looks like just a bunch of people going to go put paint on walls but it’s not that simple.”

Still, the decision came as a blow to the scope of Contompasis’ vision and, while he insists he has enough wall space for the artists he’s scheduled, he questions the logic of the board’s decision. “The areas that are historic are still falling apart,” he says. “It can be a historic building, but if it’s gone you’re defeating your own purpose.”

 

With this weekend’s events approaching—more than 20 performance art events at 99 Pine Street, lectures at the New York State Museum on street-art technique, urban sustainability with the Radix Center and BrooklynStreetArt.com founders Jaime Rojo and Steven Harrington, a street demonstration at LarkFest, and the murals’ unveiling—artists like Cake, Radical!, VRNO, White Cocoa and Clown Soldier can be found tucked into city lots, finishing their work and talking with neighbors. Brooklyn Street Art has been diligently documenting the creation of a number of the murals.

The first piece to be completed was a portrait of Nelson Rockefeller next to a recreation of one of the Empire State Plaza Art Collection’s most prominent paintings, by acclaimed artists Gaia and Nanook. Again, the symbolism is fitting. Viewable from 787, like Rockefeller’s behemoth Empire State Plaza yet on a comparatively microscopic scale, the mural echoes a bygone sentiment that Albany should be a cultural as well as political capital. And like the architecture that Rockefeller chose to make this point, the piece is not without its share of controversy. Whether residents agree with the message or aesthetic is almost beside the point. The piece is unavoidable and the conversation about how we imagine our city is wide open. To this end, it’s not surprising that public art is a key part of the Albany 2030 city-planning project. It’s seen as a way to engage a new generation in creative stewardship of the city.

“I’m tired of hearing people use Abany as an excuse for something,” says Contompasis. “It could be a great city but it’s just a matter of realizing its potential. Art has the power to change destinies . . . and, at the end of the day, Albany is going to have positive international attention through an artistic conduit.”