This year the Downtown Albany BID's Sculpture in the Streets project is titled "All Signs Point to Downtown" -- the BID is aiming to restore a handful of "ghost signs" around downtown. The announcement of the project and its call for artists prompted some interesting discussion about the idea this week, both critical and supportive. And the interest is understandable: this work will be on display for thousands of people all around downtown.
Among the people with a reaction: Samson Contompasis, a mural artist and the organizer of the Living Walls mural project. He reached out to AOA with some strong objections -- both artistic and practical -- and we thought it'd be interesting to share them here. We also talked with the Downtown Albany BID to get its perspective.
First up: Samson...
This is a restoration project, and sign painting is a trade.
Since the 1800s groups of men referred to as "Wall Dogs" would travel town to town painting all of the beautiful signs and advertisements that time has eventually etched away. So are we to throw these traditions and methods away to use inexperienced people to recreate a part of our past that is, in my opinion, doing just fine? The reasons blacksmiths, cobblers, biscuit companies would hire these tradesman is because of the quality of their work. The fact that they were employing an artist with a trade.
Now for this "Sculpture in the Streets" project, it seems we are to cut out the very artists that have kept up this time-honored tradition? And in a time when this trade is very much alive and well.
To better understand this, there is a museum dedicated to these tradesman with a history of sign painters, to further understand the state of these craftsman's situation please look into this documentary that is soon to be released.
These artists are dedicated to the techniques and time-honored traditions of the old masters that "artists" that are signing up will not have. The reason a lot of these signs have lasted as long as they have is because of the materials they used. They were made in a time when lead was a base for paint. As they currently stand, the murals were painted with paint that does not exist anymore. The complete chemistry makeup is different than any paint that exists today due to leads and other toxic elements, hence the reason for there longevity and also amplifying the need for people with experience.
From purely an artist's perspective, the list of rules that goes along with this project is disgusting:
"Artists in all stages of their careers are encouraged to apply, but must be able to free hand letters, pay close attention to detail and line work. Previous work would include murals, signs and stencil work. This project has a lot of focus on lettering and layout on a large scale."So they want sign painters. OK. They do state they will provide scaffolding and lifts, but this:
"Paint will be provided by the BID, but brushes and other materials needed to complete the sign will be the artist's responsibility."
In my experience working on masonry in construction and artistically, each sign will need between 5 and 25 different types of brushes to re-authenticate the original designs. The proper brushes generally cost between 10 and 95 dollars per brush.
So even with the stipend you are expected to provide everything except the paint?
"Artists must be able to re-create from an image they are provided."
If there is no artistic license, if there in no freedom of style or intrinsic value of the artist themselves, if there is no imagination or thought involved, then why call it art?
It is artistic, I will not argue that. The men and women who do this beautiful trade are artists, but this is not art because it leaves no treatment for engagement. This is restoration. When you are told what to paint, at that point it then becomes a job or commission. (For an example of effective and artistically charged signage please visit Stephen Powers AKA Espo's work. He has been writing "Love Letters" to different cities for years and was also integral in the revival of Coney Island's Astroland and boardwalk.)
I feel like artists are being cheated in this deal and I am tired of this trade being brushed off. Artists are a valuable commodity. With no value for their own work being allowed the artists become cheap labor for a not well researched or thought about project. If they really wanted to do this why couldn't we allocate city funds specifically to have professionals that love and care about these old signs come in with leagues of experience in bringing back to life what our once great city had to offer, instead of hiding it behind the falsehood of it being an art project.
The Sculpture in the Streets project has between $10,000 and $30,000 dollars at its disposal for each venture they take on. It is shocking to me that they had not considered any of this in their curation. They have a stipend available for artists, but it still doesn't match what a traditional sign painter would make to do things correctly.
I am concerned that these pieces of our history will be destroyed. You don't hire a plumber to do an electrician's job. Even with the stipend the selected artists will be on scaffolding or other types of rigs for between 2-10 hours a day for a number of weeks painting a designated piece on a masonry surface, which is grueling work.
If done correctly this is a great restoration project -- even if I don't agree with it... but call it that. Do not hide this under the guise of art.
Samson's comments arrived via email and were lightly edited.
The Albany BID's Take:
AOA spoke with Georgette Steffens, executive director for the Downtown Albany BID to get her take on the criticisms, and on why the ghost sign restoration was chosen for this year's Sculpture in the Streets project.
Steffens says Contompasis is right, this year's project is more of a restoration project. She views it as a restoration/art/history project. "It is really a restoration project using local artists," Steffens says, "but there are local artists who specifically have that training and skill set and it's too early to say who we are going to get."
She says preserving the integrity of the signs has been paramount to the BID since the conception of the project. "We're working with Tony Iadicicco at Albany Center Gallery, who has been helpful in trying to identify if there were artists that had the capacity and how long it might take and in giving us more of an artist's perspective."
The artists, says Steffens, will receive stipends of $500 to $2000, depending on the size of the sign and the amount of work it will take.
The idea for the ghost sign project, she says, was born when the BID had to move out of its building because of water damage.
"We were located at 54 State Street temporarily, and I would look out the window and see the Bond Clothing sign, and I was intrigued by the history of downtown being a retail hub for the Capital Region, before the suburban malls were really created. A lot of times we walk around downtown and we don't look up at the architecture and history that is there in these buildings -- if you just look up we have all that and more here," Steffens says. "Then I started noticing other signs. We thought it would also be an interesting way to remind people of downtown Albany's history as a retail hub.
"When I talk to people about this project they tell me about their job at Sherry's Department store or shopping in downtown. When we were looking for old photos of the signs we found pictures of the window displays in the department stores and pictures of 25 women all trying on shoes in a downtown store. And that is not how I know Albany's downtown -- and that gets me excited. People of my generation don't know Albany in that way, so we really wanted to capture that and tell that story through the restoration."
To that end, Steffens says the BID is planning to incorporate window displays of some of the vintage clothing, shoes, and hats from the era when Albany's downtown had a bustling retail sector. They're also trying to get sticky film recreations of some of the photos from inside the stores, and place them in the windows.
Apparently there was some discussion about creating new signs for existing businesses, but they decided against it. "We really wanted to stay true to the integrity of what was here," she says.
Steffens says pleasing everyone is something that's been challenging with the Sculpture in the Streets project. "If you choose a national artist, for example, local artists are unhappy." But she says the BID tries to do something different every year, "Last year's exhibit is a perfect example of allowing local artists, with their own designs, to tell stories through their paintings. Some of them were very personal. That 's just not the direction we're taking with this years exhibit."
photos: Chuck Miller
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