Could Public Art on Utility Boxes Displace Communication?

Art in Pittsfield, Massachusetts: A utility box on a sidewalk is covered with interlocking hands in all the colors of the rainbow.
A painted utility box on a sidewalk in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Miriam-Axel Lute

Rainey Knudson wants people to stop putting art on utility boxes. “In Houston, the underlying idea for our local box-painting effort is that it ‘converts blight into art by painting the blank canvases around the city,'” she wrote on Glasstire last week. “What’s not to love? Well for starters, when have you ever looked at a blank electrical box on the street and thought, ‘Gee, I wish someone with moderate artistic skills would paint a toucan on that?'”

Knudson’s critiques are a bit deeper than just complaining about the quality of the art work. First, she argues that we should let urban infrastructure blend into the background. (“Consider how, undecorated, these things disappear into the urban landscape. They aren’t “blight”—certainly not in the way that litter or abandoned buildings are. Electrical boxes are something you probably never noticed, until your local municipality started decorating them.”)

A utility box in a traffic median painted to look a street vendor of popcorn with a child standing in front.
A utility box in a traffic median painted to look a street vendor of popcorn with a child standing in front in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Miriam Axel-Lute

But the far more compelling argument is that it’s a way of spending public art money that is extremely limiting for artists. (“I think this bizarre trend has less to do with beautification than it does with cities wanting to take control of street art, to make it sanctioned, palatable, institutional, and toothless.”)

Instead, Knudson proposes extremely open-ended public art proposals to be judged entirely on merit. I’d be interested to hear local officials’ take on Knudson’s proposal.

However, it was a seemingly small comment Matthew Sekeletron—an artist from Troy, New York—made when he shared the article that has really stuck with me. Utility boxes are a common place to post flyers, and the poster suspected this was in part a sneaky way to combat that.

What Does Art Displace?
A utility box painted blue with stylized fish sits in a flower bed in a park with a brick factory-style building in the background
A utility box painted blue with stylized fish sits in a flower bed in a Pittsfield, Massachusetts park. Photo by Miriam-Axel Lute

When an officially sanctioned mural covers longstanding street art, we instinctively can see the problem (I hope).

But there are important functions in public space that are not always “art” and are not valuable in proportion to their prettiness. I am reminded of the fights in New York City in the late 1990s to save community gardens on city land that were at risk of development. The ones that were saved were more likely to be the ones that looked more like a pretty garden, completely full of greenery and flowers in well-ordered beds. The ones that prominently featured a less spiffy looking gathering spot, perhaps with bare dirt and folding chairs, were harder to rally broad support for—even though they were serving a crucial function as a gathering place, often for elderly residents.

Places where things are posted, whether official bulletin boards or blank spots on the streets, are not always pretty (though individual flyers that are posted often contain ephemeral art), but they can be important communication centers for a community. Whether it is a lost cat, a stoop sale, an apartment for rent, or a political or community meeting, the things that physically get posted in neighborhoods tend to involve the stuff of place.

Bulletin board covered in flyers
A community bulletin board in the Berkshire Athenaeum, the library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Miriam Axel-Lute

Even in our high-tech world, there a few more reliable and accessible ways to target a message to the people who live in a particular place. It’s illegal to stick things in mail boxes that haven’t been sent by the post office, and it’s time and resource intensive to go door to door anyway. Turning to social media, or a list of people who have attended community meetings, will reinforce existing networks within a place, without reaching the broadest cross-section of people. So even will posting in many sanctioned places, whether it be a church, a food co-op, or a cafe.

Something on paper posted where people walk each day also won’t actually reach everyone, but it may be one of the most democratic place-focused forms of communication we have left. Removing it may make an area feel neater to some residents, especially those who have access to other sorts of networks, but it also furthers information disparities. (Sure flyering also causes litter and requires active management by someone at the places where it happens frequently. But that’s a different challenge.)

Not every utility box is in use in this way, for sure—ones on highway medians or in downtowns or at infrequently traveled alleys probably have less value as a site of communication. But some of them may be. A broad public art plan to paint them all could easily miss that.

Since making a place more vibrant and interactive is generally one of the goals of creative placemaking, it’s important to think through whether there are unintended consequences to removing a “blank slate” from the community.

3 COMMENTS

  1. In the past two years, I’ve only seen Free Press Summer Fest and an odd campaign against Chipotle Burritos use the utility boxes for their posters in Houston. Many of the best community flyer spots I’ve ever seen in Houston are in Restaurants and Coffee Shops. Amy’s Ice Cream and Tacos A Go-Go in the Heights are some good examples off the top of my head. It rains too damn much in Houston for flyers to last long outdoors, so taking away communication is not a valid point. Stick to talking about Albany, NY.

    • Weather does affect things, for sure! (Though I doubt it rains more in Houston than here.) Please note that I, unlike the author of the original post, didn’t actually come down against ever painting a utility box, just for noticing potential unintended consequences, and valuing forums for communication as highly as we value public art that is focused on aesthetics. What is appropriate will vary from community to community based on a lot of things.

  2. Thumbs up! Agreed! (Sent here from the Glasstire post!)

    I’ve made this argument many times. Utility poles and boxes are the rare public space where we can communicate with each other, unhindered and uncensored, whether advertising a performance, looking for a lost pet, or warning our fellow citizens of some nutty, dreamt up apocalypse. Do we really want to replace these real-world sharing places with the corporate-owned FB “news” feed?!

    There was this old fellow in Ann Arbor I used to run into now and again, who would walk around, tearing flyers off utility poles, in righteous indignation, thinking he was doing us all a favor. Nowadays, the occasional post on our neighborhood social media platform complains about messy utility poles. I think some people just have a gut reaction to what they see as “messy.” It’s borne of an suburban ideal of what a city is “supposed” to be, and is sadly intolerant of the truth that humanity is messy!

    Unfortunately, the metal poles demand packing tape for adhesion, and that would be my one complaint. Staples (I *think*) have a lower-profile environmental impact. Alas.

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