Taking Artwork into the Streets

Rebecca J. Margolies

Art Street Incorporated, the brainchild of Robert C. Guillemin, seeks to create art literally on the streets of Boston. In doing so, the group hopes to make art more accessible and democratic.

One night in late April 1990, Robert C. Guillemin, at the request of Senator John F. Kerry, drove a 5,000-gallon golf course watering-truck down Storrow Drive; left in its wake were swaths of green paint and 19 scurrying art students to spread them across the road. The next day, droves of Bostonians, armed with sidewalk chalk, stepped out onto the highway and began filling the new “meadow” with drawings of birds, butterflies, and rabbits. Orchestrated by the then-brand new non-profit arts organization Art Street, Incorporated, this Earth Day celebration was founder Guillemin’s first large-scale endeavor to bring art back into the streets and to the people—a mission he continued most recently with the event “sideWalk Through Time” at the Harvard Museum of Natural History two weeks ago.

“It seems to me that it’s wasteful to have the arts be a fringe, renegade institution, unauthorized, skirting central issues and attacking them like an Indian war party,” Guillemin says. “Arts have to find out important causes, go directly to the people who are in charge of them, claim that the arts can provide a better way of handling these problems than any way that’s instituted so far, and then work diligently with bureaucracies so that the good of society is bettered.”

This enthusiasm for publicly accessible art has been the driving force behind Art Street, Inc., an initiative which has channeled Guillemin’s life-long interests in morality and the democratization of art. Though he once believed he would become a Jesuit priest, Guillemin’s desire to become an artist turned itself into a full-fledged career; after studying art in college, he became a copyist at the Louvre and returned to Boston to found his own gallery. However, he eventually grew concerned with his artistically abstract lifestyle.

“The better and better my art was getting, I was speaking to fewer and fewer people in a coded language that the art world understood, but that people outside the art world did not understand at all,” he says. It was this disconnect from society that drove him to recreate the “Mona Lisa” on the sidewalks of Boston’s Washington Street.

“It was kind of a daring statement to take what was in museums out of museums,” he says. “It was a daring statement to address a new kind of audience that didn’t enjoy the reverential quietude and sublime aura of museums, and get out into daily life, where everything is treated with kind of a common ordinariness.” To bring this message to more audiences, Guillemin began Art Street, Inc., which works to improve communities through art projects inspired by humanitarian efforts.

“I thought art should be pressed into the service of every man, of every human being, and should become a voice for every human being,” Guillemin says, “and should seek out situations in which people were being ignored, where people had no voice. Art, which is a very able voice, could become the voice of the needy.” As reinforcement for his beliefs, Guillemin rebaptized himself and now goes by the name of Sidewalk Sam (or, as he is better known, Sidewalk).

To differentiate itself from other street art collectives, such as graffiti artists, Art Street moves far from being a fringe art organization, integrating itself into the community to perform its work.

“I think this is real trust from the community in what Sidewalk’s doing,” says artist Russell T. Freeland, Art Street’s Manager of Program Operations. “He sort of imposed himself at first—doing what he was doing, getting hassled by the police—and the community folks got together and decided on how they could give him a de facto license to do this in the city. I really don’t know who else has that kind of license in a major city in the United States.”

Every year, Art Street collaborates with Mayor Menino and various Boston-based companies to create the Boston ArtWalk. With a team of artists, Guillemin decorates the city’s sidewalks with paint replicas of famous works and artistic posters to benefit social welfare organizations; each piece of art is sponsored by a particular company that has its logo associated with it. But Guillemin does not see these partnerships with corporations as a compromise to Art Street’s democratic ideals; rather, he believes that it allows the organization to ally with institutions powerful enough to make a visible difference. “The idea is good,” Guillemin says. “To have corporations promote general well-being is a principle that works.”

Paint for Peace, another effort between Art Street and the City of Boston, promotes peace in neighborhoods affected by gun violence among children and teenagers. Mayor Menino first outlined the problem to Guillemin three years ago; Guillemin then rallied artists and sent them into Boston’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The artists worked with children in after-school programs to create banners and flags that publicly displayed statements about the good parts of their neighborhoods. They also painted doves of peace on sidewalks where killings had occurred. The effort reached its peak two years ago when 1,200 schoolchildren gathered to paint a 5,000 square foot dove of peace in City Hall Plaza.

Art Street’s positive message and Guillemin’s idealistic fervor are a buoyant force for inspiring people and attracting collaborators to its cause.

“The way that [Sidewalk’s] outlook on people and on life is so focused on the positive and is so celebratory has definitely influenced me,” says Benjamin Kotrc, a fourth-year GSAS student in Earth and Planetary Sciences whose initial idea for a project to join art and science eventually evolved into “sideWalk Through Time,” a community-wide endeavor to create an expansive sidewalk mural of the history of the Earth.

“Sidewalk was stopping people—who he often didn’t realize were as important as they are—as they were walking through,” says Jennifer Peterson, the event’s organizer and an educator at the Museum of Natural history. “He took them off-guard and said, ‘Draw something.’ He really got a bunch of people on the ground who thought they would never do that.”

This testament to the ability of art—and Guillemin—to connect people with ideas or other people with whom they would not otherwise interact is just one example of the potential in Art Street’s goals.

“I think like an artist and a moralist,” Guillemin says. “I think breathlessly about the ability of the arts to be a leader to bring society into a more moral and enlightened stage.”