Columbus, OH: Finding Time/ColumbusPublicArt2012

Wiry red sculptures in the river
Photo by Nick George, The Columbus Foundation

How can a festival series of temporary art works sow the seeds for a citywide public art program?

“Finding Time: ColumbusPublicArt2012” transformed a 360- acre area of downtown Columbus into a temporary public art program, organized in conjunction with the celebration of the city’s bicentennial, using public spaces, plazas, parks, streets, and alleys as venues for art installations of many media. Ohio’s capital city had never created a public art program, so the project was positioned as a way to steer the city towards having a more permanent program put in place. Working with Cleve Ricksecker, Executive Director of the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District (SID) and his team as a fiscal and organizing partner, the program was directed by sculptor and The Ohio State University Professor Malcolm Cochran.


The Buckeye State’s capital city has a bustling central business district. In the city of 750,000 people (the greater metropolitan region registers 1.5 million), approximately 100,000 people work in the downtown area. The district itself is a mix of architectural styles: mid-19th century alley-scale blocks, glass-and-steel office towers, and the Scioto River that winds its way through the downtown. The waterway is flanked by public parks and a pedestrian promenade. The downtown is home to the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus College of Art and Design, three historic theaters, and other newer performance venues and galleries. Additionally, the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State University campus is just three miles away. The geographic focal point and architectural emblem of the neighborhood is Capitol Square and the Ohio Statehouse, an impressive Greek-revival structure surrounded by manicured lawns and high-canopied trees.


Though the downtown area is a busy government and business district, at the time of the project the city had not yet embraced public art as one of the ingredients necessary for a lively urban core. Approximately 100,000 people work in the downtown, but only 6,000 people call it home. The area tends to empty out once the office towers close their doors. To address this, the Columbus 2010 Downtown Columbus Strategic Plan laid out objectives which recognized the importance of the core downtown and the arts: 1) Invest in arts and culture; 2) Develop signature parks and public spaces; 3) Celebrate the urban experience that only exists downtown. The plan was intended to "put renewed attention on downtown Columbus, with an opportunity to transform not only the urban core, but the city as a whole.”


Though legislation was passed in 1960 to form an art commission for the city, it wasn’t until 2007 that the resources and the political will were in place to do so. In addition to overseeing the design and placement of art on city property and in the public right of way, the newly formed Columbus Art Commission wanted to start actively advocating for public art, particularly in the downtown area. The downtown was already home to key cultural institutions, and since 2001, the Capital Crossroads SID has worked to make the downtown clean, safe, and lively. The SID and downtown leaders were searching for additional ways to activate public spaces in order to attract the housing developments and the amenities that would increase the 24-hour use of the area. If, as the mayor says, downtown is “everyone’s neighborhood,” the area had the potential to be a venue for art for the entire city.


The Art Commission tried to build interest in public art by showing what other cities were doing. Unfortunately their efforts did not produce the desired changes in city policy. When Malcolm Cochran, a professor in OSU’s Department of Art, became aware of an annual competition for OSU Engagement/Impact Grants (a program to support innovative, creative and scholarly outreach and engagement initiatives that partner with communities) he thought that, “perhaps we could advocate more effectively by showing rather than telling,” and proposed a program of temporary art projects. The SID Board readily embraced the idea, became a fiscal partner, and the group was successful in landing OSU funding that launched the program. The team set out to create an open-air gallery in Columbus’ downtown district to increase vibrancy and foster the type of environment that would create a memorable experience for workers, citizens, and visitors.


The program was implemented as a collaborative effort. As Cochran puts it, “’Finding Time: ColumbusPublicArt2012’ was not produced by any single organization.” The program “was the result of a true partnership of many entities brought together for this one-time program of temporary public art,” Cochran says. “Every aspect of the program was collaborative.” The coalition was broad, ranging from the primary partners Capital Crossroads SID, The Ohio State University, the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC), the city and county government to numerous cultural institutions and local businesses. The core partnership between SID and OSU worked to assemble a curatorial team, develop a roster of potential artists, and coordinate additional fundraising efforts; many local leaders and stakeholders became closely involved in the process as well. The pastor and carillonneur of downtown’s Trinity Episcopal Church worked closely to support the realization of multiple art pieces, and additional support came from the director of the city/county bus system, the Franklin County Commissioners, the manager of historic downtown theaters, and a hotel that donated rooms for out-of-town artists.


To establish the curatorial vision, Cochran recruited Shelly Willis, Director of Public Art (now Executive Director) at the Sacramento Metropolitan Art Commission, to help implement the project. Together, they and Lisa Dent, then Curator of Contemporary Art at the Columbus Museum of Art, and Dow Kimbrell, Curatorial Assistant/Program Coordinator, shaped the program. As its name suggests, the curatorial vision for “Finding Time: ColumbusPublicArt2012” centered on the notion of time. Though the program was tied to celebration of the city’s bicentennial, the team aimed to address history in ways that would go beyond the typical—historical reenactments—and instead support engaging, surprising, and thought-provoking responses by artists to the broad concept of time. A parallel goal was to commission works that would reflect a broad range of contemporary public art, ranging from small, accessible, on-site wall paintings to large-scale sculpture, performances, sound art, and social engagement projects that challenged expectations of public art and tested political will. With no admission and being dispersed across downtown’s public spaces, the installations were accessible to all.


“Finding Time: ColumbusPublicArt2012” implemented 13 diverse public art projects by a total of more than 50 local, national, and international artists. Though it was planned for calendar year 2012, some projects stretched into autumn 2013. The Bold Booths initiative to commission local architects to design attendant booths for surface parking lots is being implemented in 2014–15. The team worked with the city, cultural venues, and private organizations to maximize involvement and investment in the project. Though a formal audience evaluation was not conducted, the council reports that attendees responded favorably. Property owners that hosted installations had a positive experience (which can be a challenging result to achieve) and are eager to partner with artists again. “Finding Time: ColumbusPublicArt2012” attracted considerable positive local and regional media attention. The program attracted a national audience, both by way of individual installations being awarded with national prizes and a symposium that drew national leaders in public arts administration. Ultimately, though, the audience was meant to be local, and by this measure it was a resounding success.


At the beginning of the project, the team did not anticipate how large of an effort they were about to embark upon. According to Cochran, the organizing team put in “a great deal more time and effort than we ever could have imagined.” But most project surprises came in the form of unplanned collaborations—the “extraordinary partnerships,” as Cochran puts it—that developed over the course of the program. In some cases, partners volunteered for roles that the organizing team had not thought to plan for in advance. Trinity Episcopal Church, for example, had been recruited to partner in a project to commission works for its bells, but once it was involved, it hosted the downtown launch event. It also unexpectedly became a partner and venue for The Time and The Temperature by Jon Rubin, which examined the relationship between the U.S. and Iran as a way to explore issues relating to freedom of speech.


Columbus Public Art
Online home of the project

Project Catalog
Document highlighting each piece in the temporary public art project

  • Columbus Art Commission
  • Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District
  • City of Columbus
  • The Ohio State University Department of Art
  • Knowlton School of Architecture (OSU)
  • Franklin County Engineer
  • Columbus Museum of Art
  • Otterbein University
  • Greater Columbus Arts Council
  • 200Columbus The Bicentennial
  • Experience Columbus
  • The Ohio State University
  • The Columbus Foundation
  • Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District
  • Discovery Special Improvement District
  • Franklin County
  • Greater Columbus Arts Council
  • Ohio Arts Council
  • United Way of Central Ohio
  • Columbus Composers: Compositions for the Trinity Episcopal Church Chime
  • Stuart Williams: Breath of Life / Columbus
  • Reinigungsgesellschaft: The Bus to the Future
  • David Best: Bicentennial Towers
  • Central Ohio Plein Air: Urban Plein Air Paintings
  • Janet Zweig: “Columbus never…..”
  • Transit Arts: We Want Your Voice
  • Nikhil Chopra: inside out: As the stars viewed the Palace
  • Candace Black: Buckle
  • Jon Rubin: The Time and The Temperature
  • Mary Jo Bole: Combing Columbus: Photogenic Drawings for the Bicentennial
  • Tim Rietenbach: Grazing
  • Columbus Architects: Bold Booths!

On February 4, 2014, Mayor Michael B. Coleman signed an Executive Order authorizing “…the establishment of the City of Columbus Public Art Program.” The city has also commissioned permanent works by Lawrence Argent and Terry Allen.