Royal Oak Shows Other City Planners How Public Art is Done

Royal Oak Shows Other City Planners How Public Art is Done

(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 21, 2018)

Royal Oak, MI- Communities though Oakland County have embraced the idea that public art has an impact.  Sometimes, though, it can be hard to know how to pull public art projects off.  That’s why Oakland County recently hosted a Planner’s Gathering at Mesa in Royal Oak – to learn from the trendy downtown and from each other.


“Meet me at the mural.”

It’s a simple way for people coming to town to have a focal point, explained Downtown Royal Oak Director Sean Kammer.  “This [mural] is important to me and my family.  My two year old knows when we’re in Royal Oak and the mural’s coming.  She says “Mama whale, baby whale,” he said.  The art that is around us becomes part of our lives and our memories.

“Whimsy of the Whales” by Jennie M. Burt is located on the side of Qudoba Restaurant on Third Street.  It is part of the “Art Explored” series unveiled in 2014, which put murals and sculptures throughout the city.

The public art has also led to private property investment in art, including a large mural on the side of The Morrie restaurant.  Artist Kobie Solomon’s creation features a tree house with famous musicians portrayed as children playing. Among them are Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and Madonna.

Another effort has brought both visual arts and music to the community.  In 2017 the Royal Oak Commission for the Arts had six older pianos painted and placed around town.  Jason Gittinger owns the Detroit School of Rock and Pop and is the head of the Commission.  After having an art piano outside his studio he helped spread the love.

“You have to be flexible and willing to take risks,” Gittinger told the audience of over 30 planners from throughout Oakland County.  “You don’t always know the answers.”  When the project was first proposed some questions were: How will these pianos look? How long will they last? Will the noise be bothersome to people in nearby businesses?  Who will keep them tuned? What happens when they break?  These details and more worked themselves out over time, but the City had to accept some level of uncertainty.

The City has also brought people together with an outdoor concert series, a day of decorating parking meters and festivals such as Arts, Beats and Eats and the Glass, Clay and Metal Show.

Some of Royal Oak’s art has been controversial.  The Star Dream fountain is a 40 ft bronze sculpture of a naked man holding up a naked woman, created by Marshall Fredericks.  It was installed in 1997 yet is still a hot topic in community forums.  Last year’s temporary placement of Seward Johnson’s “Unconditional Surrender” was designed after a famous drunken kiss at the end of World War II.  And most recently “Composition in Blue” by Mark Beltchenko raised red flags among Veterans who felt it was located too close to the War Memorial.

“We’ve been getting yelled at about that,” Kammer said of Composition in Blue, “But the interesting thing is that it’s doing what art is supposed to do – it’s making people think and have conversations.”

The conversations around public art, even the controversies, bring people together.



Kammer discussed other benefits as well. “Art can give your community advantages,” he said.  “Your placemaking, your placement of art can definitely help your economic development.”  Kammer shared a quote from Dan Cornwell, CEO of Cambridge Consulting Group, who recently moved his business of 60 employees to Downtown Royal Oak, stating “Royal Oak offers the accessibility, urban feel and walkability that resonates with younger generations.”

Another great thing about public art, Kammer said, is that “art is accessible.  There is an aspect of social equity, it’s accessible to all.”  Rather than going to a museum, public art can be easily enjoyed by anyone in the area.

“Not only does it adorn your Downtown, it can help make a community stronger.”


Kammer suggested that if communities do not have an Art Commission, they should.  An Art Commission removes some of the politics out of the process and allows people with some expertise or interest to make decisions about public art.

Commissions should come up with goals, a public policy in support of the arts, and a process by which artists can submit their works or their ideas.

Cities can also put requirements in ordinances that require or incentivize public art as part of the planning process.

And while most art will happen with grassroots effort, there are funding sources available including through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Many projects, such a concerts and the piano project, start small then mature over time.  Kammer and Gittinger urged the civic planners not to be deterred by a lack of funding.  “What do we have in our communities at our fingertips that we can get going now,” Gittinger said.  “Get some excitement started and grow on that.”


Mike McGuinness of the Pontiac Arts Commission was among the attendees.  He announced Pontiac Arts and Culture Crawl on Friday May 4, happening through Downtown Pontiac.  And he explained the Canvas Pontiac program where artists and photographers competed to have their work put onto a large canvas and displayed on signs of buildings, rather than making permanent art.

Madonna Van Fossen of SMART transportation talked about the SMART Art project in Downtown Ferndale, where the DDA worked with volunteers and the Rust Belt Market to turn an aging bus shelter into an artistic place on a budget of only $250.

After the discussion, and a meal prepared by Mesa, the guests were invited to scope out some of Royal Oak’s public art, and take ideas back to their communities.

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