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A calling card for artists, ArtWalk evolves into unique urban experience

Rochester Business Journal
December 21, 2012

Rochester has many great cultural institutions, but sometimes we forget how walkable they are. The recently completed ArtWalk extension project along University Avenue and Goodman Street has created a striking new reason to take a stroll. Soaring stainless steel sculptures, sidewalks that "speak," a limestone "quarry" filled with quizzical figures-this is a unique streetscape virtually bristling with art.
 
Constructed by the city of Rochester and shepherded by neighborhood groups, ArtWalk now connects a surprising number of Rochester's favorite cultural venues. The project greatly expands upon the original ArtWalk, a neighborhood outdoor museum which, upon its completion in 2002, captured the imagination of everyone who became familiar with it.
 
Ostensibly a street reconstruction project funded under the city of Rochester's capital budget, the project incorporated design enhancements far beyond the standard streetscape improvements. It included art by local artists, unusual paving materials and landscaping features like ornamental grasses not typically found on urban streets.
 
Extending westward from Gleason Works and the George Eastman House to Atlantic Avenue, University Avenue was narrowed from four lanes to two, emphasizing on-street parking and walkability. Sculptures outside Writers & Books and Craft Company No. 6 combined with bus shelters designed by local artists, mosaic-tiled streetlamps and small public piazzas created a truly unique urban experience.
 
While the extent of the original ArtWalk project was limited, its impact was substantial. Soon after completion, property values in the area began to rise and once-marginal businesses began to flourish. So positively was it received that the city, along with the reinvigorated Neighborhood of the Arts, immediately began plans for an extension.
 
This would turn out to be a substantial undertaking.
 
The vision quickly grew, encompassing Village Gate to the north, along with the School of the Arts and the Visual Studies Workshop, both on Prince Street to the west. The arts corridor would also extend southward to East Avenue, connecting to the Rochester Museum & Science Center. Eventually the plan included more than a mile of urban streetscape affecting more than 30 acres of privately held property. As the concept gained momentum, it brought a major new private investment.
 
The significance of the Goodman/University intersection had become obvious. It would be the geographic heart of the expanded arts district and deserved a signature statement. Understanding the importance of the initiative, the University of Rochester and Memorial Art Gallery agreed to an easement at the northwest corner of the intersection. This would allow the creation of a community gathering space at the center of the arts district. In addition, the gallery agreed to commission major site-specific artwork for the space and set aside $1.5 million for this effort.
 
The selected artists' work is now installed. Jackie Ferrara's "Path of Colors" borders a winding walkway connecting pedestrians to the gallery's main entrance. At the corner, Tom Otterness' "Creation Myth" is integrated into the new landscape. Enormous sculpted limestone figures combine with Lilliputian bronzes, creating a distinctive story.
 
Beyond the commitment for the street corner, the Memorial Art Gallery decided to invest an additional $2 million in a new Centennial Sculpture Park on its grounds, commemorating the art museum's 100th anniversary in 2013. The design, by landscape architect Mark Bayer, is a vibrant setting for artworks by internationally renowned sculptors.
 
Sculptures include a kinetic stainless steel piece by George Rickey at the university entrance drive court, Deborah Butterfield's skeletal grazing horse and Tony Smith's black enameled steel piece titled "Playground," among others. The park will also be the setting for major new commissioned sculptures by Wendell Castle and Albert Paley, scheduled for installation next year.
 
The outdoor art collection is an invitation to the more extensive collection within the museum. In the spirit of community intended by its original founder, Emily Sibley Watson, the museum's beautifully crafted new landscape connects it to its neighborhood and beyond.
 
Wrapping the gallery grounds, the ArtWalk Extension project blends with the sculpture park. The University Avenue sidewalk, once a narrow strip between the curb and iron fencing, is now a broad promenade. Special concrete paving in pink granite exposed aggregate panels is interrupted periodically by solid granite strips of paving. Each of these carries an engraved poem selected specifically for inclusion in Poet's Walk. Works by E.E. Cummings, John Ashberry, Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass are among the many engravings.
 
A similarly themed walkway has been created along the Goodman Street property. Differing from the linear orientation along University Avenue, Story Walk is a winding walkway containing words and coded messages. The combined effect of all these efforts has transformed the neighborhood and redefined the art museum's position within it.
 
While the Memorial Art Gallery has committed the most resources to date, major artworks have also been installed at other key venues. Along Goodman Street to the south, the Rochester Museum & Science Center has welcomed ArtWalk as an invitation to its grounds. A bold new stainless steel sculpture titled "Traveling through Stillness" was recently installed in a new plaza at its East Avenue entrance. The entire museum frontage is being designed to integrate with RMSC's future plans.
 
To the north, opposite Village Gate, a dramatic new sculpture titled "Needle and Spindle" has been installed in the Goodman Street median. Whether shimmering in the daylight or glowing with colored lighting at night, the piece is a beacon for neighboring arts-oriented businesses.
 
While Rochester's winter months are not the most hospitable for a leisurely walk, I highly recommend it.
 
This has become a unique section of our city and well worth rediscovering. 
 
Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or at jdurfee@bergmannpc.com.12/21/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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