Public art inspires. Public art sparks the imagination. Public art strengthens a community.
Need proof? Look no further than Jeffersonville, where a cultural renaissance begs to transform a large chunk of the city’s scrappy downtown into a neon-bright collage of possibility.
Hints of the city’s vision have begun to emerge from a long-past gritty area north of Court Avenue downtown: the reds, blues and yellows of a mural covering a former vanilla water tank, the eye-catching installations with an arc of park swings, teal and yellow shade sails and dream-like designs on a lot at Seventh and Spring streets next to the Vintage Fire Museum.
All of it has a purpose: to make Jeffersonville a cultural destination.
Not only is the city’s abstract vision taking shape — it also has a new identity: the NoCo Arts & Cultural District.
What’s in a name? A lot, according to Dawn Spyker, Jeffersonville’s public art administrator, and the creative inspiration behind so much of the city’s artistic aspirations.
“NoCo (short for North of Court Avenue) is intimate, whimsical, full of color and walkable,” Spyker stated in an email about the district, which roughly stretches from Court Avenue to just north of Eighth Street, Ohio Avenue to the west and Spring Street to the east. “This vibrant location is home to artists, makers, historians and inventors, all of which are transforming the area into an inspiring and intriguing place to live, work and visit.
“As a city on the move, this district epitomizes what we champion: creativity, community, innovation and progress.”
The city’s public art commission will host a celebration/dedication/kick-off of the new district from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 29 at the new “Picasso Pointe” at Seventh and Spring streets. At the event visitors can hear about the newly updated parking lot improvements surrounding the Vintage Fire Museum, get a first-hand explanation of the NoCo branding, meet the artist responsible for the giant water tank mural and talk with the art students from Thomas Jefferson Elementary responsible for artwork on the light features. Live music and opportunities to create art, of course, will be available. Food, too.
The city is serious about its vision. Last week Spyker submitted a 121-page application to the Indiana Arts Commission for NoCo to be designated an official arts and cultural district. Officials should have an answer by the end of October.
Public art, it turns out, is not just for aesthetics: Research has shown that art and culture benefit society.
For example, a 2017 study by the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that culture is one ingredient that helps strengthen neighborhoods. Low- and moderate-income residents in New York City neighborhoods with many cultural resources are healthier, better educated, and safer overall than those in similar communities with fewer creative resources, the study found.
Prioritizing public art can lead to increased levels of community engagement and social cohesion, according to the Center for Active Design, noting that public art can function as a powerful catalyst for improved mental and physical health.
That engagement and cohesion was on display at the recent Steamboat Nights festival at Big Four Station, which perfectly encapsulated the city’s public arts approach in a two-day event.
Kids swarmed the interactive art installations and sat spellbound in front of magicians and storytellers. My toddler son eagerly took part by placing pieces in a huge Lite-Brite display in the shape of a steamboat.
The festival had a magical, dream-like feel. Maybe it was a bout of sentimentality of being a new father, but as I stood there watching my son, I was awash with an overwhelming sense of peace. Like everyone there was one big, connected family.
That, in and of itself, is a work of art.