This year, the University of Iowa Grant Wood Symposium — now in its sixth biennial iteration — tackles the topic of public art. The symposium, a program of the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement, presented by the Grant Wood Art Colony, seeks to engage with Wood’s legacy, this year by exploring one of his greatest passions.
Wood — born in Anamosa, raised in Cedar Rapids, and who taught and died in Iowa City — was long a proponent of public art, participating in and eventually appointed as state director for Iowa of the New Deal-era Public Works of Art Project (P.W.A.P.), which ran from 1933-34 and was precursor to the more well-known Works Progress Administration (WPA).
“We have been exploring doing ‘something’ with public art since 2015, but finally found the right place in the form of this symposium,” Maura Pilcher, symposium director, said in an email.
The day-long event, which kicks off Saturday, Sept. 29 at 9:30 a.m. (registration starts at 9), will consist of presentations and panel discussions from artists, architects, city planners and others from across the country. It culminates in a 3 p.m. keynote from 2014 MacArthur fellow and Houston, Texas artist and community organizer Rick Lowe. He’ll be discussing his Project Row Houses, a program now in its 25th year that works to revitalize neglected neighborhoods through community art.
“One of the most consistent requests that the Office of Outreach and Engagement gets from Iowa communities is for public art,” Pilcher said. “However, sometimes the intent and design gets lost in translation between the community and the artist. The Grant Wood Symposium planning committee decided to delve into the interplay between publicly engaged artistic practice and current events.”
One particularly pertinent section of the program is the morning Public Art in Action session. At 10:50 a.m., Jen Krava, who teaches in the Landscape Architecture department at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, will present “Codified Bodies: Tools to Measure Social Liberation and Inculcate Cultural Change” and at 11:10 a.m., Brooklyn-based artist Traci Molloy speaks on “Against My Will: A Multigenerational Collaboration with Sexual Assault Survivors from Alfred University.” A Q&A with the pair follows at 11:30 a.m.
“Early last spring, we organized [the proposals we received] by theme — trying to group speakers by topic, but having each entering the conversation from a different angle,” Pilcher said. “Jen Krava’s and Traci Molloy’s proposals both addressed the #MeToo movement, but from different vantage points. Krava’s work, Codified Bodies, is a collection of wearables. These pieces adapt animal defense mechanisms onto the human body. This is a very specific response to general violence and harassment. Molloy’s work, Against My Will, reflects engagement with a specific community of individuals who have experienced sexual assault. She will focus on the engagement process in her practice. In addition to simply raising awareness, public art can provide a mechanism for some to process their trauma and instigate conversation.”
Other speakers include opening presenter David Bright, with “Permission, Ownership, Copyright, and Preservation, and Sale of Public Art,” which also addresses the difference between art and vandalism, and a participatory lunchtime event (currently full) called The Feast, by Sydney Pursel.
The question of public art is a popular one in Iowa City especially; in 2017, the Iowa City Downtown District hired its own director of public art, Thomas Agran, to work within the Self-Supporting Municipal Improvement District downtown. The symposium appears poised to help advance that conversation.
“I think that there is a place for both permanent and ephemeral public art, depending on the intent,” Pilcher said. “Some pieces are most effective when limited, either in space or time. I think that this is a case when attempting to achieve a specific lens through which the art should be viewed.”