Urban Renewal

Newport News has a blue-collar history, but these days it’s home to a collection of public art that would impress any sophisticate.

At first glance, Melpomene resembles some ancient, crumbling statue. She is headless and bears only one wing. A deep gorge cleaves her back from neck to knee. She teeters precariously on a small sphere. But somehow, this all seems quite appropriate: Melpomene is the Greek Muse of Tragedy, and this bronze and marble depiction of her—fashioned only a decade ago by New York City sculptor Romolo Del Deo—lends itself to mountains of interpretation.

Even more intriguing is Melpomene’s setting. It is situated in the Port Warwick neighborhood of Newport News—a mixed-use urban village, with a three-acre town square that typifies the “new urbanism” design concept: a pedestrian-friendly layout including a range of housing, retail and employment opportunities. Chris Garrett, a Port Warwick resident, passes Melpomene on his way to and from work each day. It’s one of five monumental sculptures near his home and eight more throughout Newport News created in the past decade. “[Melpomene] is a steady reminder of life’s beauty in all its forms,” says Garrett, 45, a civil engineer.

Newport News seems an improbable home for public art. Historically, it has been a rough-and-tumble, blue-collar town, anchored by a mammoth shipyard and bisected by railroad tracks over which thousands of tons of coal roll toward shipping terminals daily. It’s hardly the place one would expect to find exclusive art, so it comes as somewhat of a surprise to outsiders that a local group—working outside the purview of the city—has commissioned and erected 13 sculptures along Newport News’ aging city streets and public squares, its modern developments and urban renewal projects. It’s all part of a nearly ten-year effort by the Newport News Public Art Foundation, or NNPAF, to enhance citizens’ lives through art.

According to the NNPAF’s supporters and other people in the community, the group’s art installations have enhanced once-mundane cityscapes, giving citizens a sense of pride and place. And the effort is steadily earning acceptance and recognition throughout the region. Robert L. “Bobby” Freeman Jr., chairman of the NNPAF board of directors, believes that the NNPAF is providing a model for public art, proving that outdoor sculpture is just as fitting in a medium-sized city as anywhere in the world. “Public art can do a lot of things,” he says. “It can inspire, it can enrich. It can provoke and it can educate. It can help revitalize a neighborhood. It can raise awareness and it can even bridge differences between people.”

But first, as Freeman notes, the art has to be seen. The NNPAF’s top priority since its inception in 2001 has been to choose well-traveled sites for the city’s public art and to bring in talented artists to transform these spaces. In that sense, the organization certainly has been successful. These days, it’s easy to catch a glimpse of the NNPAF’s projects around town—from the whimsical Carambola, a 12-foot bronze sculpture by Emanuele De Reggi depicting a human figure vaulting into the sky on a globe at Hilton Library, to Gregory Henry’s Monument to Service, a curving marble wall, solemnly honoring the work of the city’s civil servants at Newport News Police Headquarters. And there’s Izar, which offers a distinctive welcome to visitors, and a farewell to travelers at the gates of Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport. Izar is made from a 30-foot stainless steel plate, cut and twisted, as if moving toward some double helix, a piece DeKalb, Illinois-based artist Bruce White calls “a geometric discovery.”

Freeman, a native and resident of Newport News, is the person most responsible for assembling this eclectic collection of artists and their work. Affable and approachable, Freeman has practiced law and worked as a certified public accountant. He is currently president of Tower Park Management Corporation, a Newport News-based real estate and development firm. The Port Warwick neighborhood is one of his company’s projects. Freeman not only designed the property, but he and his wife, Vicki, moved there as well. The local daily newspaper, Daily Press, has recognized Freeman’s contributions to Newport News’ culture, charitable causes and economy, naming him its 2006 Citizen of the Year.

The NNPAF is Freeman’s brainchild. Though not an artist himself, Freeman says he was first exposed to great art when he traveled to Europe as an adolescent. Now more than four decades later Freeman, 57, feels fortunate that he’s in a position to bring what he considers a diverse range of monumental sculpture to his hometown. He travels frequently in search of art, visiting cities around the world supportive of artists and their work. For example, he makes an annual pilgrimage to Pietrasanta, Italy, famous for its nearby quarries (where Michelangelo selected the marble for the statue David), its abundance of public sculpture and the world-class works of art created there by resident and visiting artists.

“I’m going out and finding artists who are in the prime of their careers,” says Freeman. “We work exclusively with living artists, people who are still in the trenches.” Artists have taken notice: They’ll sometimes hand him their résumés when he’s abroad.

Freeman attributes the NNPAF’s success to several factors, the first of which is pragmatism. He sees Newport News—and American cities in general—as being in a favorable state of transition. He believes that public art is a natural fit for that evolution. “America is rediscovering its cities,” he argues. “Whether it’s traffic, cost of living, all of these places are experiencing an urbanization.” Freeman disputes the notion that Newport News is still a blue-collar town. Whereas manufacturing once sustained the local economy, now you’re just as likely to find software development and engineering and research firms he points out. This focus on cities, he believes, creates a strong desire among citizens for more meaningful public spaces.

Another element of the NNPAF’s success is collaboration. Quite by design, the NNPAF’s 15-member board of directors—the panel that deliberates on which sites are chosen and which pieces commissioned—is comprised of a cross-section of community members including artists, educators and civic leaders, as well as those whose expertise is in applied arts. The board appoints its own members, extending invitations to people who will meaningfully contribute to its work.

Walter Wildman, retired principal of Rancorn Wildman Architects, PLC, is one of two architects on the board. While he thinks that his specialty lends “knowledgeable opinion” to selection decisions, he sees his role as part of a much larger gathering of minds. “These are broadly educated people from a variety of backgrounds and there’s a highly intellectual aspect to our dialogue,” explains Wildman. “These people are well qualified to voice opinions and their comments help bring a particular piece into focus.”

Whereas most public art boards are government-sponsored or funded, the NNPAF is a private, non-profit organization that doesn’t get wrapped up in red tape. It doesn’t have to hack through the bureaucratic underbrush that often hinders projects in other cities. When the NNPAF feels ready to embark on a new project (they often have several going on at once), Freeman presents the board of directors with a few possible sites drawn from a lengthy master list made a decade ago when the organization was formed.

A few criteria are used to select a site—chief among them the potential availability of funding for the work. Some locations are better suited for a sculpture because their proximity might facilitate corporate or individual donors. For instance, a particularly large individual donation for Spirit of Life outside Riverside Regional Medical Center came from one of the physicians who works there. Next Freeman offers suggestions for artists and a few styles of sculpture that might be a good fit for the particular spot. Some artists have submitted résumés for consideration, although Freeman’s broad knowledge of the art world allows him to also consider artists who may not be aware of the NNPAF’s efforts.

Once the board has chosen a site and come to agreement on which artistic style might work best for it, Freeman goes directly to an artist to commission a sculpture. The artist provides Freeman and the board with a mockup of the sculpture, although the design may be tweaked as he or she creates the full-scale piece. Working outside official government channels helps to reduce the cost of a sculpture, which is typically $100,000 or more. Freeman does not have to calculate government employees’ or curators’ salaries into the overall cost of the work, allowing his group to bring in more art for less money. So far, the NNPAF has spent $1.3 million on the 13 works throughout the city.

Though the city government is effectively a bystander in this public art effort, Newport News officials seem happy that the organization is beautifying the city. Mayor McKinley Price says that the public art “plays a vital role in enhancing the quality of life for our citizens” by effectively rendering Newport News a “museum without walls.” He says there has been no discernable rancor or ill will about the NNPAF being an extra-governmental organization. The small amount of criticism leveled at the NNPAF has come from individual residents’ distaste for a particular piece of art, he says, not the group’s work in general. Price says that he will continue to be supportive of the group’s effort.

According to Freeman, the NNPAF’s autonomy gives the artists easier access to the community. After a deal has been struck, the group brings the artists to Newport News before, during and after the sculpture’s creation. “It’s a requirement that the artists come to the city,” says Freeman. “We have them to speak at the unveiling and we get them in local classrooms.” The result is that the pieces take on a deeper meaning for the artists and for the community. That’s the ultimate goal of the NNPAF, according to Freeman—imbuing artwork with significance for its creators and recipients.

The NNPAF’s biggest challenge, as a private entity, is fundraising. Only a few NNPAF sculptures have received any public monies. So the NNPAF must reach out to the community regularly with fundraising campaigns. Many donations come in the form of large private gifts—some as high as tens of thousands of dollars. But small donations add up, too. Carambola’s $95,000 price tag was met with the help of students from nearby Hilton Elementary School who embarked on a fundraising effort, gathering $5 or $10 each from parents, friends and neighbors, eventually raising more than $700.

That’s precisely what Freeman and the NNPAF are seeking—to get the city’s diverse community, with all its age, experience and income levels, to both rally around and invest in public art. “A very small percentage of people will pay to go into an art museum,” says Freeman. “But people don’t have to make $250,000 a year to enjoy art. The welder on his way to work at the shipyard might see a sculpture, and it will take on a personal meaning for him.”

Freeman aims to double the number of public sculptures within the next few years. There are at least three projects on the drawing board. One of them is being created by famed Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt and will be located in Newport News’ largely-minority southeast community.

As NNPAF board members acknowledge, Newport News will never be a Providence, Toronto or New York—cities known for deep histories of public art. Still, they are pleased to be a part of a grassroots effort to build Newport News’ program from the ground up. Freeman notes that the area’s 400-year history deserves a public art program equally as impressive, but he must take small steps in reaching that goal. “New York City has had generations of exposure, so you can be broader in your selection. We have to be sensitive to what the community would want from their art.”

He says he’s comforted by the intimacy of living in a relatively small town that he knows so well. “I’ve had people, even some of the sculptors who haven’t been here yet, ask me why we’re doing this in Newport News. I tell them that it’s the kind of place where you can get in close enough to actually affect the fabric of the community.”

Chris Garrett, staring at Melpomene on his way home from work, agrees. The public sculptures “instantly add depth to the area where they are placed,” he says. “They change the flow of energy and become a calming influence on the area around them.” In other words, he adds, the art is enhancing everyone’s quality of life—slowly, steadily, one person at a time.

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