A Gallery in the Sky

by Jonathan Wright

Showcasing local talent on outdoor billboards…

Art + Public Outdoor Project = ArtPop. That’s the equation for a national program coming to Peoria this summer. A collaborative effort from Adams Outdoor Advertising and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, it’s the latest in a wave of public art projects that are transforming the face of the region.

Your Art: Here
Though relatively new, ArtPop’s origins date to the early 2000s, when a Pennsylvania sales executive for Adams Outdoor envisioned a way to bring her passion for the arts into her day job. “I wanted to help the local artists in our community and inspire commuters,” explains ArtPop founder Wendy Hickey. Noting that billboard space opens up from time to time, “I asked my GM if we could use available space to do this… and that is where it began.”

It wasn’t called ArtPop then, but the basic idea was in place. Over the next dozen years, similar programs popped up in a handful of U.S. cities, including Peoria, but none had the staying power of a national movement. When Hickey moved to Charlotte in 2012, she decided to take her concept to the next level. After coming up with the ArtPop name and mission statement—“to promote local artists’ work through available billboard space”—she established a partnership between Adams Outdoor and the local arts council, and in January 2014, ArtPop officially launched in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In addition to inspiring the community at large, “several artists were commissioned for work because people saw their billboards,” Hickey notes. That initial success led Charlotte to sign on for a second year, while ArtPop expanded into Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. This June, Peoria will become the third city to participate.

Local artists Doug and Eileen Leunig were instrumental in bringing the program to Peoria. At a meeting late last year, Brad Mitchell, regional general manager at Adams Outdoor, told the couple about ArtPop and his interest in getting art onto billboards in the Peoria area. “We told him that ArtsPartners would be a good fit and told Suzette [Boulais, ArtsPartners’ then-executive director], who took it to the board,” says Doug Leunig. ArtsPartners board members Maegan Gilliland and Kristan McKinsey volunteered to help guide the effort, and thus was born ArtPop Peoria.

An Intriguing Space
“The fantastic thing about ArtPop is that it has a blind jury process,” says Gilliland. “It doesn't matter if you are a professional artist or just starting out—if the jury likes your submission, ArtPop provides the means to have your name and art broadcast to a large audience for an entire year.”

In late March, ArtsPartners announced the call for entries to artists in Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford counties. The jury will select four winning artists, as well as a small pool of contestants to vie for the People’s Choice Award, which will be voted on by the general public. The five winners will be announced in May, and the following month, their art will be high in the sky—emblazoned across 14’ x 48’ canvases for all to see.

Aside from a modest submission fee, there is no cost to the artists. Adams Outdoor facilitates production and provides the billboard space, ArtsPartners covers the cost of materials, and for the next year, the selected artwork will be rotated on billboards throughout the Peoria area. It’s a win for the artists—better, perhaps, than any gallery space—and an opportunity to reach thousands of people who might not attend a traditional art exhibition. It’s also a way for Adams Outdoor to give back to the community—and draw attention to the medium of outdoor advertising.

Indeed, billboards offer an intriguing space, one that’s unique to the medium. Against a fractured landscape of personally-curated media, they remain one of a few shared public experiences, standing alone in a high-impact, larger-than-life environment. And though typically used to market a product or service, ArtPop turns that idea on its head. It offers the unexpected, adds contrast and color, and promises double-takes from highway travelers.

“One of art's best jobs is to attract attention,” Leunig declares. “And it does a darn good job with curiosity, too.” And that curiosity may just prompt a conversation about the role of art in our daily lives.

21st-Century Makeover
The past year has seen an array of public sculpture and mural projects take hold in the Peoria area. To this list you can now add billboards, which offer similar benefits. “Public art—whether it's sculptures on the sidewalk or art on billboards—enhances life in a city,” says Leunig. “It humanizes the built space and demonstrates a visible appreciation and support of creativity.”

As Peoria's image gets a 21st-century makeover, the formula for attracting creative talent is no small matter. In an age when entire career paths are being replaced by intelligent automation, creativity remains difficult to codify. It’s what fuels innovation, the driver of progress in an environment of unparalleled complexity and unremitting competition.

When embedded in a community, art becomes a sweeping advertisement for vibrancy—an aesthetic indicator of life. In this sense, the partnership between an ad agency and an arts organization is not only logical; it’s a no-brainer. With a new Caterpillar headquarters complex on the way and downtown development efforts starting to bear fruit, programs like ArtPop Peoria are small pieces of a larger quality-of-life puzzle, each key to the workings of the whole.

And with billboards about to go up in Peoria, Wendy Hickey is working with numerous cities around the country to expand the program—and her ambitions are even loftier. “My goal is to bring ArtPop to every city in the U.S. that has billboards,” she says, “then expand to other countries.” In the meantime, your morning commute just got a little more attractive. a&s

For more information on ArtPop Peoria, visit artspartners.net/artpop-peoria. To view ArtPop images from other communities, visit ArtPopStreetGallery.com, or find ArtPop on Facebook.