Meet Deborah Greel - Moving the Public Art space forward in Salem MA

Deborah Greel on Artists Row - Salem MA - Hoops were part of a public art exhibition in conjunction with Salem Arts Festival

Deborah Greel on Artists Row - Salem MA - Hoops were part of a public art exhibition in conjunction with Salem Arts Festival

A Creative Salem original story

Story by Keith Spencer (Nobo Magazine) with Photos by  (Social Palates)

SALEM – When asked about art in the North of Boston region, most residents and visitors are instinctively drawn to the close knit colony of Rockport, however, another historic seaport is gaining momentum as the destination for creatives of all kinds. 

Last year, the City of Salem finalized its Public Art Master Plan that outlines recommendations for the community’s Public Art Initiative. Acknowledging the impact on cultural, aesthetic, and economic vitality, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll tapped longtime resident Deborah Greel to be Salem’s first public art planner in June. 

“I have lived in Salem for 25 years, and it is great to back in the community I’m proud to call home,” said Greel. “There is incredible energy and forward thinking initiatives that make it an incredible place to live, work, and play.”

Greel previously served as the first director of Salem Main Streets before accepting her most recent position as Executive Director of the Marblehead Arts Association. She helped that community breath new life into the nearly century-old organization whose membership now boasts an impressive 250 artists in 35 communities across seven states. 

At the MAA, she was also in charge of operations at the King Hooper Mansion, experience that will surely serve her well as her new responsibilities include oversight of operations at Old Town Hall. Salem recently terminated its contract with Gordon College who previously oversaw functions after it was determined that they were violating the community’s anti-discrimination law. 

The venue is used for both public events and private function rentals that Greel is excited to oversee and potentially expand. Old Town Hall will continue to be home to the History Alive! Cry Innocent performances that have taken place since 1992, and The Salem Museum will continue to operate here since both cut ties with Gordon in pursuit of a 501C3 nonprofit designation. 

“As we move forward, we need to be less reactive and more proactive to really examine how Old Town Hall can better function within the greater community,” Greel admits. “There will be more opportunities to tell stories about the history of Salem and to provide the public with memorable performances that will enliven the building.”

Artists and residents can expect more public art and programming beyond Old Town Hall into the neighboring Derby Square and Artists Row. Greel believes all three venues are the quintessential platform to promote and celebrate the vast public art collection the community has and continues to create. 

In the coming weeks, Artists Row will receive some needed repairs and repainting, matching the trim of Old Town Hall in an attempt to begin creating a more cohesive space. Greel and the Commission will also look at the hours and engagement levels for opportunities to bring more people to the row next season. 

“We have happily incorporated Art Carts into the row starting this past weekend. The Art Carts will feature creative tools that will be as simple as providing bubbles and sidewalk chalk, two mediums accessible to artists of all ages,” Greel expresses. “We need to let people know this is a place to engage and create beauty even if it lasts a few seconds, minutes, days or years.” 

Greel’s work with the Public Art Commission is currently centered on their development of a first-year work plan that is based on the Salem Public Art Master Plan that was developed after a year of public input and analysis. 

Deborah sits at the foot of one of the Austin Collins public art installation

Deborah sits at the foot of one of the Austin Collins public art installation

“The Commission is an engaged group of citizens volunteering a tremendous skill set that will make it easier to begin getting to work on the master plan,” praises Greel. “We still have to walk a little bit before we can run, but we are on our way.”

One of their first tasks will be to inventory the community’s current public art, including identification, research, and documentation that will ultimately be available on a map, website, or other digital formats. The Commission is currently seeking an intern and volunteers interested in assisting with the project.

“We have murals, historic sculptures, contemporary pieces, and great institutions and galleries that the public need to come to know and appreciate,” Greel points out repeatedly, “on a local, regional, and national level.”

The Commission will also look at procedures to determine the feasibility of projects when approached by artists, nonprofits, and companies as well as how they will approach others about potential projects, calling the development of these standards a “major priority”. 

While she was mum on the types of projects residents and visitors can expect in the future, Greel ensures that the Commission remains committed to keeping an open mind, however, funding opportunities will remain an important and unknown component of all future initiatives.

“There are a lot of people with whom we can partner,” Greel affirms, “and we hope to work with future developers to discuss the role, importance, and desire for public art in our community.”

Keith Spencer from Nobo Magazine interviews Deb

Keith Spencer from Nobo Magazine interviews Deb

Greel also hopes to collaborate with Mickey Northcutt and the North Shore Community Development Coalition in The Point Neighborhood. Salem is currently working to implement a redevelopment plan that will both preserve and build upon the public art in the culturally significant neighborhood. 

“Mickey’s work and the Summer Concert Series at Peabody Park are fantastic, and are wonderful examples of public art out in the community,” Greel says about the program she oversees with backing form Mayor Driscoll, “but there will be more opportunity to engage and bring life to The Point with the arts.”

Ultimately, Greel believes the scope of artists, the mediums they create within, and their public role will be essential to future growth in Salem.

“Most people think of public art as a statue, but it’s so much more. It can be organic or something temporary. It could be an installation or a performance,” Greel explained. “Art is about exploration and discovery, something at the heart of Salem’s history and essential for its future.”

“I’m looking forward to examining and implementing what’s best for the community, its collection, and our artists.”

Photo gallery by Social Palates

Photo Gallery: Keep Salem Clean - Artists Row Edition