The building designated for the ArtHouse project in Gary, Indiana. (Taylor McKinley)

They will light up hundreds of vacant houses in run-down sections of Albany, Troy and Schenectady, turn a downtown building in dilapidated Gary, Indiana into a restaurant incubator with eye-catching art and install works along the Los Angeles River to remind people of the city’s perpetual water problems

Bloomberg Philanthropies is funding these projects and a fourth in Spartanburg, South Carolina as part of a new program meant to use public art to inspire economic growth in struggling areas. Each project will receive up to $1 million – the foundation is remaining flexible to meet needs that crop up – with the grantee also expected to raise additional money to make the projects come together.

In Gary, where the population has fallen from 180,000 people in the 1960s to roughly 80,000 today, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson recruited artist Theaster Gates, who has been working on urban renewal projects through the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative.

They determined that the city, long struggling with crime and building vacancies, needed something to inspire people to come downtown. More restaurants.

“The simple idea is let’s see if we can call TGI Fridays or Chili’s and see if they’ll relocate to Gary,” says Freeman-Wilson. “But you know what’s on the menu.”

Instead, Gates will work on “ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen” out of a large downtown building. The space will be divided up for a half dozen locals to create mini-restaurants. Local artists will be recruited to design exterior works that get people to stop and take notice of what is now a nondescript building. Restaurant as art project?

“All of this feels like art to me,” said Gates. “It’s not like the façade is the art or the light sculpture we put above the building is a piece of art. That’s art but I also think an artist being directly engaged with government about the future of their city is art. That feels like the extension of a conceptual work to me.”


Breathing Lights, conceptual drawing (Courtesy of Adam Frelin)

In New York, along the Hudson, artist Adam Frelin will work on “Breathing Lights” with more than two dozen partners, including city leaders in Albany, Schenectady and Troy and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to light up more than 300 vacant homes. There will also be what he’s calling a “summit” on the subject meant to create a discussion with property owners, legislators and locals. Why light? Schenectady was the headquarters, starting in 1887, for Thomas Edison’s company. General Electric opened up shop five years later.

“We’re in a region that doesn’t have any history of public art,” says Frelin. “I wanted the first large scale piece to be digestible. On a simple level, you’re going to see this cool thing coming out of some random buildings. If you live here and you’re driving through, there’s also going to be this conceptual link that happens.”

Kate Levin, the former New York City cultural affairs commissioner who heads up Bloomberg’s arts slate, said that even though the projects are meant to be temporary, the idea is to create partnerships that outlast them. She points to the New York installation as an example. Not only have a variety of organizations agreed to work together, the leaders of Albany, Troy and Schenectady are cooperating.

“It takes a combination of confidence and egoless-ness and a rarely seen commitment to serving your citizens to say we’re going to be able to work together,” she said.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, as part of what it’s calling its “Public Art Challenge,” is also funding the Los Angeles project, “Current: LA River,” that will feature 15 multidisciplinary works, and “Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light,” with artist Erwin Redl overseeing a project meant to use LED light works to inspire safer open spaces.