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Ross Avenue Underpass Will Soon Be a Lot Brighter

by Stephen Becker 25 Apr 2011 7:56 AM

The City of Dallas public art program will soon transform a section of Ross Avenue that passes beneath Central Expressway. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports that project has been eight years in the making.


The City of Dallas public art program will soon transform a section of Ross Avenue that passes beneath Central Expressway. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports that project has been eight years in the making.

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You wouldn’t really want to walk through here at night. In fact, this stretch of Ross Avenue that connects the Arts District with the Bryan Place neighborhood is so dark, you might not want to walk through it during the day.

But a new art installation promises to light up the space and make it more inviting for pedestrians and cyclists.

Wayne Smith is a member of the Bryan Place Neighborhood Association, which fought for the public art project.

SMITH: “This is going to be a game-changer to an entrance into that district, not only for Bryan Place neighborhood, but for all citizens of Dallas that are coming in from the north and the east part of the city. We could just go a straight, plain entryway, but we think that this area deserves more than that.”

Tucson artists Joe O’Connell and Blessing Hancock came up with the winning proposal for the art installation. Their design was picked from a pool of 41 entries. They envision a series of 30 glowing shapes – each three to four feet wide – that will be made of high-density polyethylene and placed along the pathway. Each abstract figure will be lit from the inside, which Hancock says accomplishes one of the goals of bringing light to the area.

HANCOCK: “It was important to use actual forms. Not just light the space with something that wasn’t tangible. Something that felt like it welcomed you, that felt safe to be around was very important so you could interact with it.”

A city ordinance reserves a small percentage of bonds that pay for capital improvements for public art projects. The budget for this project is a little more than $112,000 – money that has been earmarked for improving the Ross Avenue Underpass for about eight years. The fact that it’s taken this long for the money to be spent is an indicator of how tricky it is to get some public art projects made.

Designs must be approved by the city’s public arts committee, its cultural affairs commission, the City Countil and the Texas Department of Transportation. A different design failed to get all the approvals several years ago and the process started over. In the end, no fewer than 75 people will have weighed in on the current proposal.

Critics of public art say the committee method can lead to uninspired choices that are more concerned with not offending anyone than about provoking thought.

But Kay Kallos, the city’s public art manager, says the committee approach is necessary when you’re dealing with shared space.

KALLOS: “I think that the committee process is important because it is public art. So there are many opportunities for citizens of Dallas to participate in this – and they do participate in all levels.”

Kallos hopes construction on the project begins in early fall. The whimsy of O’Connell and Hancock’s winning design was one reason it won, she says.

KALLOS: “I think when we look around the city, some of the most popular pieces of public art – whether they’re city of Dallas public art or DART, which has a great program as well – they tend to be playful in some aspect, so that they have an accessibility to them.”

This work will be accessible. Pedestrians can make it change colors by touching it. But wouldn’t that make it an easy target for vandals?

KALLOS: “A lot of times when artwork goes into areas, people who are engaged in graffiti activities or vandalism move onto another place, because there’s no longer a clean slate for them to work on.”

If graffiti artists do strike, their tags probably won’t last long. The glowing forms will be covered with a graffiti-resistant material that allows for paint to be wiped off.