Artists are breathing fresh life into Madison’s boring old utility boxes

September 8, 2018

The snake-like body almost hidden in a sea of vibrant pinks, yellows and greens can still catch an eye from blocks away.

Designed by artist Michael Velliquette, “The Serpent of the Color Source,” located at the intersection of South Baldwin and Williamson streets on Madison’s Near East Side, is one of more than 20 original creations that have transformed city-owned traffic signal utility boxes into striking art installations.

The idea to beautify the plain utility boxes that dot the city came after activist and former Madison City Council member Eve Galanter came across a similar project in Bloomington, Indiana, 10 years ago.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we do this in Madison?’” Galanter said. “Just because the green and gray ubiquitous boxes are essential doesn’t mean they have to be boring intrusions.”

After asking the Madison Arts Commission if it would be possible to replicate the project, the commission eventually voted to pilot the Utility Box Art Project by wrapping four utility boxes near Capitol Square in 2016, Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf said.

The original four boxes were used to test the durability and effectiveness of the vinyl material they were wrapped in. After withstanding all four seasons, including a cold Wisconsin winter, the material proved itself worthy of beautifying more of Madison’s utility boxes.

While some public art is controversial, this project has met with “universal approval,” Galanter said.

A similar art project, spearheaded by the North Side Planning Council in 2013, transformed ordinary bus stop shelters with vinyl stickers of artwork, designed by Daniella Echeverria, that celebrated the city’s North Side.

“People respect art and are less likely to impose their graffiti on it,” Galanter said. “I’m so excited that we in Madison are able to transform these ugly essential boxes into works of art, not only because they are pleasant to look at but (because) they deter defacement.”

Artists for the Utility Box Art Project must consider themselves professional artists and be selected by the Arts Commission to have their work showcased.

Each artist selected is compensated for the licensing of the image submitted.

The project aims to highlight professional artists who live in Madison, but there are opportunities for non-professional artists to submit artwork to be displayed on some utility boxes. These “community boxes” would be placed near libraries and community centers, according to the city.

The project is just starting to cover 240 above-ground traffic signal boxes owned and managed by the city of Madison, with 15 more of the boxes scheduled to be wrapped before winter.

“I feel like it helps make Madison a happy city, and that makes me happy,” Wolf said, adding that one of the priorities of the Arts Commission is to provide opportunities for local artists to showcase their work.

“That’s the goal and I feel we’ve met it,” she said.

In an effort to expand the project, the Arts Commission is calling for professional artists 19 and older who live in Madison to submit their artwork for summer 2019 installations.

“I think (the program) is just one more on the scoreboard of the quality of life in Madison that continues to make us one of the best places to live,” Galanter said.

To learn more about the guidelines for submitting artwork to be included in the project, visit go.madison.com/call4artists.

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