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Madison Metro Public Art Finalist, a milestone and thank you

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Earlier this summer, I became a finalist for a public art commission with Madison Metro Transit System. I am one of four finalists who presented a proposal this September, for the first public artwork funded by Madison’s Percent for Art Ordinance. I presented my art proposal for the site in September. Tomorrow, Madison Arts Commission votes on the four finalist proposals to choose a winner.

My final presentation for City of Madison Arts Commission

The Community’s Stories

I spent the summer interviewing bus riders, primarily BIPOC, to center their experiences of riding the bus in Madison. From the start of this project, it felt crucial to center the people who rely on this public infrastructure the most.

From these interviews, I created an art proposal entitled The Time is Ours (read the full proposal), which portrays the city from the perspective of the bus rider. Each section of the artwork starts with a portrait of a bus rider looking out the window, observing the passage of time via subtle but distinct signifiers in Madison including: the first spring crocuses, buzzing cicadas, fluffy milkweed pods, and the silence of snow.

The Time is Ours: mockup of an 8,000 square foot public artwork that consists of a mural painted directly on the wall and CNC cut aluminum shapes floated away from the wall surface to provide depth.

Beyond public transit, there is another historic significance to this project. This is the FIRST public art project that will be funded through Madison’s Percent for Art ordinance. The legislation for this city ordinance was passed in 2017, six years after Governor Scott Walker eliminated 68% of Wisconsin’s arts funding and the entire state-wide Percent for Art program back in 2011. These cuts knocked Wisconsin to 49th in the nation for arts funding.

In other words, the Metro project will be the first Percent for Art project in Madison in over twelve years by the time of final installation in 2023.

To everyone who has already sent in community feedback to Madison Arts Commission–you have participated in a historic milestone. This is more than one art project, on one building. The Metro project impacts the design and development of the East Washington corridor, the primary thoroughfare that connects people with the Wisconsin’s Capitol. Who gets selected for this project sets a precedent. It sends a message about who City of Madison values and wants represented as the City grows.

You are also telling City officials, the arts aren’t just a niche thing that only “arts folk” care about. People of all backgrounds care about the design of their communities — and the cultural ethos embodied by our public art. There are 39 pages of community comments not counting the emails that people are still sending, and that’s incredible.

The Time is Ours: mockup showing the first two sections of the artwork, the first with spring crocuses and melting ice, and the second with sunflowers and cicadas

My Story

In 2011, I lived in Milwaukee and was still teaching in the public school system. I experienced the effect of the Act 10 budget cuts on the ground, and the instant devastation of Walker’s budget cuts in the predominantly BIPOC school where I worked. I was 23 years old and dealing with my own economic precarity. I wondered, would I stay in Wisconsin after that? Could I survive in a state that was so hostile to BIPOC, to educators, and to artists?

I did stay, and I built my life and career informed by this complicated, wholehearted place. I had my first art studio in Milwaukee. I started my business and became a full-time artist in Madison. I had my former studio on Main Street only a few blocks from the Madison Metro facility. My home was on East Dayton, also a few blocks away. My experiences here continue to inform my research and work on art ethics. While I may be far now, Teejop / Madison is a place that I’ve loved dearly for a long time, and I hope that love comes through in this proposal.

Jenie Gao Studio at 931 E Main Street, Suite 16, photo by Brian Huynh
Artist Jenie Gao of Jenie Gao Studio, LLC Grand Opening + Gallery Night of 1,700 sq ft studio, 931 E. Main St. # 16 Madison, WI, photo by Bruce Fritz

As a woman of color, and the only person of color who’s a finalist for this project. As a former Wisconsin educator. As an artist who built her career here. As a former resident who planted roots here. It would be an honor, twelve years after a devastating blow to Wisconsin’s public infrastructure and massive arts funding cuts, to be the person leading this project that serves as a milestone for healing.

Thank you:

As we await the results of this public art proposal, I want to take a moment to express a wholehearted THANK YOU.

Community engagement processes are immense and humbling. There is a lot of labor, seen and unseen, that makes this kind of work possible.

Thank you to the bus riders, who shared their stories and collective wisdom with me, and made their stories available to share with city staff and the greater Madison community.

Mockup of Section 4 of The Time is Ours, which depicts snow and empty space. This area has the most tree cover and will be most visible in winter when the leaves have fallen.

Thank you to the community organizers, including benji ramirez and the team at Operation Fresh Start, who helped me connect with a wider breadth of bus riders outside of my own network and beyond the groups that typically get included in civic processes.

Thank you to the many community members who gave public testimonies at the meeting on September 7th, who have emailed Madison Arts Commission, and who have continued an outpour of support and feedback to the City of Madison about these art proposals. Thank you to Nipinet Landsem for making an easy guide for people to get involved.

Thank you to the city staff who took me on site visits, connected me with metro staff members, and helped me gain insights into the metro building and public transit infrastructure.

Mockup of pedestrian view of The Time is Ours from the northern side of East Washington Ave

Thank you to the city arts staff, Karin Wolf and Meri Rose Ekberg, for doing the behind-the-scenes work of maintaining the public art process. Thank you to the many people who fought for the Percent for Art Ordinance to come to fruition.

The Madison Metro project is the first public art project that will be created using funding from Madison’s Percent for Art Ordinance, which was finally passed in 2017, several years after the state level public art program was eliminated. This is a huge milestone not only for Madison, but also for Wisconsin.

This is more than just one art project, on one building. The Metro project also impacts the design and development of East Washington Avenue, the primary thoroughfare that connects people with Wisconsin’s Capitol. Who gets selected sets a precedent and sends a message about who City of Madison values and wants represented as the City continues to grow.

Mockup of The Time is Ours with view of Wisconsin Capitol building from East Washington Avenue

The community outpour of interest in this project proves how deeply people care about the future of their cities, and whom the design of our cities includes and elevates. I hope that beyond the Madison Arts Commission, the officials who represent City of Madison recognize the significance of high community engagement in public art. This isn’t a niche thing that only “arts folk” care about. People of all backgrounds care about the design of their communities–and the cultural ethos embodied by our public art.

For all the years that I have been doing this work, I am repeatedly in awe of collective brilliance. I hope that everyone witnessing the progress of this proposal feels the same growth of community wisdom. We have received an immense gift already, by engaging with our neighbors’ stories and insights, and experiencing this civic process together.

Thank you for being a part of this with the community, and with me.

All my best,

Jenie Gao

Mockup of section 2 of The Time is Ours, featuring sunflowers and cicadas. Each section ends with a bus shelter, to recognize the number of times bus riders emphasized the importance of bus shelters in Wisconsin to protect people from the extreme weather of the state.
Mockup of section 3 of The Time is Ours, which features fluffy milkweed pods and migrating geese.

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