It’s time for Joplin to start a new public art collection. We need to brighten our street intersections by turning those drab, gray metal traffic light boxes into works of art.

It’s been happening across America for quite some time. Cities of all sizes are turning these traffic boxes into art canvases not only for beautification and promotion of neighborhoods, but also to fight graffiti tagging. I say that if we’re going to claim a reputation as an art community, it’s time to for us to jump onboard.

There are the naysayers who roll their eyes at using these boxes to brighten the urban landscape. A writer on Glasstire, an online journal promoting the visual arts in Texas, argued that these non-descript boxes blend into the landscape, never screaming for public attention, so who cares? She contended that the trend of painting them has less to do with beautification and more to do with cities wanting to take control of street art, “to make it sanctioned, palatable, institutional, toothless.”

I disagree. Just because the boxes blend into the landscape, doesn’t mean they’re off limits for brightening an area through public art. And it doesn’t entail street art in the graffiti form that is painted in less public places, giving the artists more freedom of expression. This is public art and, as such, artists understand that there will be parameters for creating it.

If street artists view painting of traffic boxes as a city’s way of controlling their artistic expression, then how come local graffiti-style street artists are interested in painting them? In an interview in the online publication, The Joplin Toad, a group of them discussed their desires to paint traffic boxes, but they were unsure of where to start with getting city approval.

The Tank, a local public art group responsible for several small public murals in the downtown district, approached the city about painting a few boxes about eight years ago. At that time, the powers that be at city hall brushed it off, contending that painted boxes would distract drivers. Really? What about the public murals in major traffic areas? The city didn’t worry about traffic accidents when they were proposed, and I haven’t heard of any accidents while people were stealing a glance while driving by a mural.

Timing can be everything. Under a new city manager, which will be forthcoming, we may meet with more open minds about this. Wouldn’t it be better for the city to sanction it than to leave it to art marauders, striking at night with artwork that may be offensive or questionable? If the city were to take on such a project, it could ensure high quality, creative workmanship in designs that are acceptable in public areas.

Cities began jumping on this trend as far back as the early 2000s as a way of transforming drab streetscapes into outdoor galleries, while discouraging graffiti tagging and promoting neighborhood identities.

The box art designs are of every type — historic images, landscapes, cityscapes, abstracts, florals, cartoons, music-related motifs, and just about anything else that an artist can conceive. Some art is painted directly onto the boxes. With others the images are embedded into vinyl wraps, allowing designs to include photographs, printmaking images, drawings, mosaics, or other mediums.

Programs to paint the boxes vary from city to city. In some of them, the city handles the process of advertising for design proposals, commissioning the artists and paying for it. In others, downtown or neighborhood associations, art councils or nonprofit groups oversee the projects, handling the commissioning process and funding them through grants, business sponsorships or donations. In all instances, the cities are responsible for maintenance of the boxes once they’re painted.

The City of Columbia’s traffic box program began in 2007 and is administered by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Each year, there’s a call for artists to submit proposals for painting boxes with one or two more boxes added each year. There are now about 14 in the downtown district.

An online Traffic Signal Box Art Participation Guide for the Arts Council of Indianapolis estimates costs at $800 to $2,000, dependent upon the amount of commissions paid to the artists. The costs vary because the arts council allows anyone — from nonprofits to neighborhood associations to other citizen groups — to formulate their own program, allowing them to set their commission amounts and how much they’ll cover in supply expenses.

This is just another form of public art that speaks of a desire to promote art, to put some spark into the streetscape and to promote neighborhood or business district identities. It’s certainly less expensive than commissioning large public murals. It’s worthy of consideration, whether by the city or by community groups willing to work with the city.

Marta is an arts columnist for The Joplin Globe.

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