Picture this: you’re crossing a crowded square on your lunch break and before you is an art exhibit unlike any you’ve seen before. You didn’t set out to have a meaningful creative experience, but there you are, stopped in your tracks and curious for more.
The Arlington Art Truck does just that. Launched in April, its monthly installations travel around the county bringing new artistic ventures to the public outside of a traditional gallery setting.
Arlington County’s Cultural Affairs’ Special Projects Manager Cynthia Connolly came up with the idea three years ago. Having previously worked with farmers markets, she thought that the method of driving in and setting up something for the public could work just as well for art as it did for produce.
It’s the artistic cousin of the bookmobile and the farmers market. The truck brings art to places where people wouldn’t expect to find it, urging them to think aesthetically for a few moments. “It’s about bringing something to people and creating space for them to have a dialogue,” Connolly said. “The truck really brings forth new ideas in the community." These “locations for activations,” as she calls them, range from schools, festivals, the aforementioned farmers markets, and busy thoroughfares.
Along with public funding, Connolly’s project won a $25,000 award from the National Endowment for the Arts to outfit the truck and compensate the artists to be featured inside. The vehicle is a work of art in itself: a white van hand-painted with bright colors in the shapes of pens, paint brushes, cameras, and other creative tools by the artist Stephen Powers. It has a customized cargo bay with desks, cabinets, and outlets to power the artworks that need it. Connolly said as more artists get on board, they will continue to alter the truck to meet their specific needs.
It is on the road from April through October, when an array of Artists-in-Residence engage the public in projects ranging from an impromptu workshop or performance, to a pop-up gallery. Additionally, each artist pairs with a local nonprofit to help spread their message. In the downtime, Connolly books the artists and does the behind-the-scenes work required to get these large-scale activations out into the public view.
The project launched in April with an installation called "Bipedal Soundscapes" by artists Emily Francisco and Alex Braden. The interactive installation is activated by pedaling a stationary bicycle. The sound sculpture has a five-tiered turntable, which houses vinyl records with recordings of distinct Arlington sounds. Each person who pedals the sound sculpture hears a unique audio playback from the piece. This activation partnered with Bike Arlington and Phoenix Bikes to shed light on what’s going on in the community.
Future activations include “You Are Magic,” an inflatable interactive sculpture by Alicia Eggert. After that will be “Color Your Future Garden,” a watercolor seed planting chart designed by Marcella Kriebel.
According to Michelle Isabelle-Stark, Division Director for Cultural Affairs in Arlington, the project is distinctly suited for the locality. She moved here three years ago from Long Island, New York where she was involved in cultural activities over the large expanse of Suffolk County. But in Arlington, she said, there’s a sense of intimacy and engagement that goes along with the density, which she calls “the Arlington way.”
“We also want people to understand that art is not necessarily a painting on a wall they can’t access,” she said. “These are artists who work in different ways, who are accessible, who live in this community and want to talk with their neighbors about their work.”
Isabelle-Stark was looking for a project to continue bringing local talent to the public after the arts complex Artisphere closed a couple of years ago. That’s when she heard Connolly’s plan for a mobile venue. “It’s sometimes hard to get people to go to a physical space,” she said. “If the community understands the talent that exists here, it will help generate more demand for the arts. Mobile arts is a good fit for this area, with the numerous outdoor activities here. It ties in with geography and how people interact."
Isabelle-Stark hopes the Art Truck will spark creativity in people who were not even aware they had it. Watching the reactions to “Bipedal Soundscapes,” she said it has been amazing to see “people get so excited to try it out.” For Connolly, that excitement means early success. She tries to have one activation per week. So far, they have been to a bicycle race, a farmers market, and two schools. She said the students asked really smart questions.
Reaching kids isn’t the primary intent of the Arlington Art Truck. Connolly’s ideal demographic is mostly adults. “There are a lot of working adults who could reimagine creativity in everyday lives,” she said. “It’s even more of a challenge, how to get adults engaged. It’s easy to get kids to want to make art."
To that end, Connolly has chosen artists with projects who are able to spend a whole day conversing with the public about their work and what it means to be creative. She is in talks with dancers about whether that medium works with the truck’s mission, as well as with artists who are interested in plastic consumption and could possibly offer an educational component with their work. But all of it goes back to a simple goal: getting art off the wall and into public space.
“Certain people go to galleries and have expectations about viewing art and being moved by it,” Connolly said. “We want those not expecting that to experience something. The truck brings these new ideas into public space. We want to change the way they see artwork and are inspired."
Photography by Lesnick Photo