SSU Students Discover Wealth of Public Art in Downtown Salem

This year Salem State University launched its First Year Day of Service Initiative – Moving Forward, Giving Back – teaming up students with local organizations for collaboration, networking, and community outreach. The students didn’t get to choose their placements, but a lucky few who had professed an interest in art got to team up with Salem Main Streets, the City of Salem, and Creative Salem for a few hours on Friday September 2nd. 

The decided-upon subject was public art, because in Salem there’s a lot of it, and the day centered around how these public art pieces and projects are being catalogued and recognized in the broader sense. 

“I love this initiative because as a community organizer it introduces these students to a community aspect or town that they wouldn’t normally get to see if they had just been going to class, and it also hopefully helps them to create a few lasting relationships.” Says Kylie Sullivan, President of Salem Main Streets. 

“Salem State had reached out to me and a number of other community organizations saying ‘We can have a group of students for you, do you have a project you would like them to do?’ I said we have a lot of projects that I could think of that need to be done that would keep them busy for a day, whether or not that would be something that would have the kind of long-lasting impact and conversation that we really want to have, I don’t know. I wanted to choose something that would have a meaningful impact.” 

She and John Andrews of Creative Salem sat down to talk about the idea, and since they had simultaneously been discussing ways to develop signage for all the great public art projects happening in Salem at the moment – Tradewind, the Salem State Mini Golf installation “What Matters Most” near Old Town Hall, and Salem Sound Coastwatch’s Storm Drain Murals – it seemed like focusing on public art and figuring out just what’s going on in Salem right now was a great idea. 

“There’s so much public art and it needs to be documented, but everyone is at capacity. So we wondered if it would be helpful if the students went around and documented everything from the art boxes to the storm drain murals to some of the larger statues.” 

They agreed it would. 

Kylie also recognized that one of the facets of the City of Salem’s Public Art Master Plan was to have an up-to-date catalogue of all the public art in the city, but as time and resources are short, there’s a limit to how much can be accomplished.

“More and more I’m looking for Main Streets to have a role in filling this gap, not necessarily in doing the job, but in arranging volunteers to do something or take initiative on gathering data that would be helpful in decision making. I want to be able to help the city in a more tangible way, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to make that happen.” 

Deb Greel, Salem’s first public Art Planner, was equally excited about this initiative. 

“Anytime that we can collaborate with Salem State we do, we’ve done that on a number of different projects – including, most recently, The What Matters Most Project. 

"There’s always been that question of how do we get the students here. And working on something like this can really give a greater presence to the idea, where someone can say, Hey, I did that, and if it’s public art, I was involved with that.”

“I think Salem State is quickly moving into a new era of community engagement,” agrees Cindy Vincent, Faculty Fellow for the Center for Civic Engagement, “where many of our faculty, staff and administrators are excited to partner with the community and to identify ways in which the university can be an asset and resource to the Salem community. 

There are many areas in which we try to do this, to include service-learning, volunteering, field experience, co-curricular activities, and internships. This year's First Year Day of Service will hopefully be the first of many to come as we have received such positive feedback from all entities involved: students, faculty, staff, administration, the city, and community members.” 

Salem State University Students Take a Walk with Public Art

The students, led by Cindy Vincent, met with Kylie, Deb, and John outside of Old Town Hall to get oriented on what they would be doing and discovering that day. 

“Art is at the foundation of so many parts of our lives,” Deb explained to them, “and it’s not just a creative pursuit, but in the cases of designing buildings, bridges, etc. it’s also an innovative pursuit. Public art exists to bring accessibility to art. It’s also thought-provoking, it enlivens spaces, and creates an experiences that connects people to the city.

“Most of the public art in Salem tells a story.” Here she pointed to the TradeWind installation, situated adjacent to Old Town Hall. “For example, it can reflect the history and the importance of the sea trade, a part of Salem’s story that’s sometimes overlooked.” 

“What most people may not realize too,” John added, “is that all of this is done by someone who makes their living as an artist. If you look around you, anywhere you go, the only reason that it’s not a bland, blank, white wall is because of an artist or a creative. The design on your shirts, the pinwheels, the posters, it’s all there because of an artist. 

“In our city, we want it to be possible for anyone who wants to be an artist and share their work to be able to do that. We also want to make it possible for the people who walk by the art, say the murals for example, to be like ‘Hey I’d like learn more about this” and for them to have a place to do that.” 

“Also, where we put the public art is a conscious choice.” Kylie chimed in, “It’s meant to encourage people to walk a very walkable city. We use it to make a space fuller, more well-lit, and safer. It not only plays a role in telling the story of Salem, but it also plays a role in shaping the downtown area itself.” 

After the discussion, Deb and Kylie took the students through Artists’ Row to meet with the working artists – including Tommy Gagnon of Boston Woodturning, with whom the students were quite impressed – and to see the murals along Klop Alley which have been up since the Salem Arts Festival Mural Slam in June. From there, the students split up into two groups to document the public art scattered throughout the downtown area. Their mission was to catalogue the pieces themselves, take photographs, and note the condition that the pieces were in. They also were instructed to track whether the pieces had signage. 

They had their work cut out for them. 

“There are more than 40 pieces of public art in the downtown area alone.” Deb explains. “There’s paintings, statues, all kinds of things, and we thought it would be really wonderful to have it documented. 

“Also, for that one particular day the main concern was the condition of some of the pieces. Some of the art boxes are now five years old and we don’t know the condition of them. We have a general idea of the state they’re in, but If that could be photographed we would know for sure.” 

After the initial orientation, the students spent about four hours wandering through the city not only documenting and photographing the public art but thinking critically about what could be done to make the process simpler. Kylie also introduced them to the online GIS system which is the current catalogue of public art in the city. Unfortunately, this system is outdated and clunky. 

“The maps are at least five clicks away, which makes it tricky for people to find them, and then once you have found them you have to swipe a lot in order to get to the actual mapping and see things. I tried to get the students thinking about are there more useful ways to do this, are there cheaper ways to do this, can this be done on Google Maps, are there things we can put on them, would a QR code be useful? These are all important conversations to be had.”  Kylie explains. 

After this initiative, the students left with a new sense of appreciation for the art in Salem. Many of them had shown up to the event having little to no idea what they were really getting into, but admittedly it was a positive experience all around. 

“They left with a lot of information. They had a diversity of what their majors were, but I personally think art transcends all of that. No matter what you’re choosing in your career I feel art still has a piece and I often don’t think that we connect that. And if nothing else I was hoping that they would see that context, whether it’s to make it to enjoy it or be surprised by it to even think about it.” Deb Greel said. 

Cindy Vincent agreed. “I remember (at least in my group) many of the students said they learned a lot about how public art can highlight important issues in a community. For example, the drain art raised awareness to the group about the impact dumping has on our waters. Several of the students said they knew that, but never stop to think about it and that the art really showcased that problem for them.” 

“One of the nice things that they all said at the end of the day was “I had no idea there was so much art, and once you start looking at it it’s literally everywhere.” Kylie responded. 

Creating An Up-to-Date Inventory of Salem’s Public Art

The planners of this event hope that this initiative will be part of an ongoing process. The ultimate goal for this endeavor, and for any future attempts to document the accessible pieces in Salem, is to create an inventory of the public art, and to develop best practices for the gathering of this information. Salem’s public art is a striking piece of its heritage, one that deserves to be acknowledged and cared for. Having an up-to-date catalogue of the inventory is one of the best ways to ensure its protection. 

“I see this as at least a two-fold issue. I think it’s important for the artists themselves to be recognized for the amazing contribution they provide to our community. Public art plays such an important role in creating a sense of place of community that without it our community would lose part if its identity and culture. Because our town attracts so many tourists, I think its important to be able to continue the education of all facets of Salem to them as they traverse our city and learn about our past, present and future.” Cindy Vincent observes. 

One of the difficulties about tracking public art in Salem arises from the fact that many of the pieces are temporary. Although the statues and art boxes may be up for several years, many of the murals and installations sprinkled throughout the city are only meant to be up for a handful of months, sometimes even just weeks. Because of the nature and location of these pieces, and due to New England weather that is often indifferent to art and culture, they will eventually lose their luster or will be removed for safekeeping. Some of them will see this fate without ever have been properly documented. 

Other more permanent public art pieces have been better cared for, but as they lack sufficient signage they may fail to leave any lasting impact on the viewer. 

“Everyone understands the statue of [Nathaniel] Hawthorne and also the one of [Roger] Conant, but very few get the [Joseph Hodges] Choate statue on the corner of Boston and Essex Street. It really makes you think not only about the impact people can have on a community and how that’s memorialized. but also how we can forget who they are because they’re not living amongst us today.” Deb Greel explains. 

"Having the students here was a great first step. I’m looking to find some people who are interested in continuing to help with this inventory. If I wasn’t working as the public art planner, I would volunteer to help with this.” She continues. 

"Someone who would for instance, be willing to document the paintings that are at City Hall - people don’t think about that at public art, but it definitely is. Also the statues and things around town as well as the more contemporary art, sometimes when we think of public art we think of contemporary not necessarily the things that are amongst us that tell our story of our city.”

Joey Phoenix is a portrait and event photographer, videographer, and proud member of the Creative Salem team. Follow her on Twitter and IG @jphoenixmedia