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Sky-High Gallery
A new public art exhibition brings 18 organizations together in a splashy, unorthodox way. And you might have trouble avoiding it.

Stone Creek Coffee’s new Fifth Street cafe is in the belly of Milwaukee’s transit beast. From the window seat – in the shadow of I-794 freeway buttresses – you can see the gleaming white Intermodal Station and the white towers of the Sixth Street bridge. And then there are billboards – soaring skyward on steel skeletons that place them squarely in a freeway commuter’s field of vision.

It’s the billboards that get Pegi Christiansen’s attention. She’s the chair of IN:SITE, the organization responsible for turning stretches of Milwaukee’s streetscape into temporary public art during October with a project dubbed Digital Billboard Art Month. And we are here, after all, to talk about just that. Energetic, passionate and organized, Christiansen is in the middle of the planning process of a

visual art event that will be seen by an unprecedented number of Milwaukee eyes.

“Generally, I think billboards are a private invasion of a public space,” Christiansen says. But after working with billboard-sized murals on other IN:SITE projects, she saw the possibility of using the space as a vehicle for public art. And Clear Channel Outdoor and Lamar Outdoor Advertising have cooperated by turning some of their ad space over to Milwaukee artists. “As usual, I went into meetings thinking I’d get maybe 10 percent of what I was asking for. I was looking to have Billboard Art Day on maybe a couple of billboards. But they offered much more.”

IN:SITE and the ad firms worked out an agreement to feature 18 billboard images that will rotate through the “image cycle” on several digital billboards around the city for 10 days. Each sign will feature an image that represents one of 18 nonprofit Milwaukee arts groups, ranging from museums (Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art) to educational institutions (Mount Mary University) to artist groups (Milwaukee Artist Resource Network). Each image will be identified by artist name and organization, which will help showcase individual local artists and promote art institutions. Lamar Outdoor estimates the art will be seen by more than 1 million people during those 10 days, Oct. 1-10.

IN:SITE chose the groups – limited to nonprofit, visual arts organizations based in Milwaukee County – and asked them to submit five possible billboards. Then Graeme Reid, the director of collections for the Wisconsin Museum of Art, selected one image from each organization.

Using billboard space as a public canvas is nothing new. In 2012, a group called Public Works turned over several Los Angeles billboards to street artists such as Shepard Fairey. And the United Kingdom’s Art Everywhere project will soon turn signs around the country over to classic images from British museums. But Christiansen believes this is the first project that highlights both artists and organizations, without simply advertising local museums or arts groups.

IN:SITE has also used billboards in previous installations. Milwaukee artist Jesse Graves, for instance, used vinyl billboard material to create a mural and transform a railway underpass on Capitol Drive. Projects like these got Christiansen thinking about the advantages of electronic signage, which can transform a scanned image into a piece of public art, without the controversies that usually surround similar projects.

“Public art is a real minefield,” Reid says, noting the battles that often accompany permanent public sculptures or murals. “It’s a very contentious issue: ‘How much does this cost? Why did they put it in this location?’ This project gets art in front of the general public in a very visible way, but it skirts around those sorts of issues.” It costs the public nothing, and it’s not permanent.

That said, there are still things to consider when selecting images that will flash before thousands of commuters daily. (The images on the digital billboards will change every 8-10 seconds and are intermixed with advertisements.) Visitors to a gallery might expect to see works exploring nudity or political controversy, but Christiansen says a public project needs to avoid the hot buttons. What’s more, the billboards need to read well from the road in a single glance – distracting drivers is not one of the group’s goals. “I don’t think of it as a distraction any more than any other digital billboard,” Reid says.

For a curator like Reid, whose job is devoted to bringing the best work of Wisconsin artists to a broad audience, the billboard project is particularly important. “Before we champion the out-of-state artists,” he says, “we need to recognize our own talents. If we fail to do that, we not only ignore the past, but insult our present and fail the future.” And this project, for certain, will be showcasing local artists in a big, school bus-sized way. 

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