There’s a thrill in stumbling on a piece of art, hidden in plain sight, that you haven’t seen before outside, or on Instagram, or on some blog. Even if you’ve walked down such and such a street 1,000 times before, once a piece of public art strikes your consciousness, the space it occupies can shift in your perception.
There’s also a scavenger’s thrill in tracking down the art sprinkled throughout your city’s parks, architecture, and subway stops, hopping from mural to mural or statue to statue, seeing your city through a bunch of different artists’ eyes.
To give this experience to residents of New Haven – my home city, totally underrated for both art and pizza – one arts nonprofit has created a digital, curated map of public art pieces in the area.
Like other public art maps before it, ArtSites presents works throughout New Haven as pins on an interactive map. For Selby Nimrod, who created ArtSites in collaboration with the nonprofit Site Projects, New Haven’s art-to-space ratio made it perfect for a mapping project.
New Haven stretches about 19 square miles and boasts roughly 500 pieces of public art.
“These two features of New Haven – its walkability and a public art ‘collection,’ uncommonly strong for a city of its size – make it particularly well-suited to developing something like ArtSites,” Nimrod said.
At least for now, ArtSites is not meant as a comprehensive look at all the public art available in New Haven. Site Projects funded the development of the map, including a research project by Nimrod into the local public art scene and its history. Thirty pieces were chosen for starters and painstakingly logged by Site Projects staffers and freelancers; 30 more are expected to be incorporated over the next two or three years.
Looking at the ArtSites index, I noticed that some of the mapped works are clearly ephemeral – take the wheat paste murals by the artist Swoon – and I remembered an experience I had reporting on the former graffiti mecca 5Pointz in Long Island City, NYC last year.
I was standing outside the once brightly recognizable building, all its graffiti whitewashed over months earlier by the site’s developers, as the bulldozers started taking their first bites. A woman stood next to me peering through the outer fence, and I asked if she had come to watch the demolition.
She hadn’t. Holding up an old guidebook, she told me in a French accent that she had come to see the big graffiti building, but must have made a wrong turn somewhere, could I point her to the right place?
For Nimrod, keeping track of her selected art works as they fade, change or get disassembled is just as important as creating the map itself.
“Insofar as ArtSites is a map to locate public art and a tool to learn about it, an archival practice is essential,” Nimrod said. “We have a category of artworks included on ArtSites which we call ‘ART-cheology.’ These works, denoted on the map by specially-colored pins, are no longer visible at their sites.”
For example, “as Swoon’s wheat-pastes fade and are deinstalled, they will be transitioned into the Art-cheology section of ArtSites.”
Nimrod said that she has heard some people talk about ArtSites as itself a piece of public art, but doesn’t agree.
“I see ArtSites as a free and open resource to learn about art, and about the city,” she said. “I see ArtSites as an exhibition, not as an artwork in itself.”
Along with mapping new pieces and doing the grunt work of keeping ArtSites’ information up to date, new social elements to the site may be incorporated in the future, such as site check-ins. No plans to expand to other cities at the moment, though, Nimrod said. ArtSites is about New Haven, for New Haven.