It Just Might Work: Public art without the middleman


One sweltering night this August, I swiped my lips with black mood lipstick and slipped out my door. I slid up to the bar at Westerwood Tavern and grabbed my poison. Talked up an artist regular. Pumped back a neon Jell-O shot.

By the time I sauntered home, I’d heard an idea and sketched out its story — an artist-to-business direct model for public art — no city brokerage, no committees, no concessions to bureaucracy. It’s an idea born out of experience.

Beka Butts lives in Greensboro and works around the Triad as a professional artist. A Savannah College of Art and Design grad, her current gigs — at High Point’s 512 Collective and her own illustration work — involve heavily promoting local art and artists.

Cue the hassle. When it comes to public art, Butts said, “Asking the city to sanction a project can bring negotiations to a grinding halt.” Besides the scarcity of funding for artists to create preliminary sketches, there’s also a tangle of dollars at play — grants and private funds, not to mention government say-so.

Butts described city- or county-involved deliberations over public art in which competing interests led to the art’s quality becoming compromised.

“A lot of hands in the pot means people without art or design in their background decide what works,” she said. “An engineering project wouldn’t be treated that way.”

Instead, Butts advocates for a 21st-Century paradigm of the artist — both highly skilled in their discipline and business savvy. While Triad business owners cooperate for a healthy economic environment in the area, Butts said., “Local artists are [also] galvanizing.”

For example, Butts and Westerwood Tavern proprietor Mike Bosco have a mural in the works that will cover one of the bar’s lengthy outdoor walls. While the mural doesn’t require public assets or space, it is public in the sense that the design — which Butts imagines will present colorful patterns and read “Grow” — will be visible to all.

The mural, which cuts straight to the heart of artist-business cooperation, is what Butts called “a beacon of what I’d like to see for the Triad, that we stand together and function as a bigger metropolis.”

And that’s what big-picture art on a small scale looks like.