To see works of art, people often must venture to museums or art galleries. Not in Newport News. That’s because the city itself is an open-air art gallery. Really.
There are 22 pieces of public art positioned all over the city. Most residents drive or walk past them daily. A twenty-third sculpture is in the works and will be placed in front of the Denbigh Community Center.
The art, almost all sculptures of varying size, design and material, is the brainchild of Bobby Freeman, who developed Port Warwick. Freeman founded the Newport News Public Art Foundation (NNPAF) in 2002. He wanted Newport News residents to enjoy art as much as he does, so he made it accessible, free and beautiful to see as they go about their day.
Initially, Freeman was not intending to place art outside of Port Warwick. But when then-Mayor Joe Frank saw the five monumental sculptures that Freeman placed in Port Warwick, he asked Freeman if the public art idea could be expanded to include other areas of the city.
“Bobby and Joe put their heads together and created the foundation,” says Danny Carroll, executive director of NNPAF, a non-profit organization based out of an office in City Center.
When the foundation first got off the ground, it had the lofty goal of placing 15 sculptures throughout the city in its first three years. Freeman created a board of directors for the foundation, the members of which “became art experts in this kind of work,” Carroll says.
Freeman set out to find the ideal artists to create the perfect art for specific locations in Newport News. He traveled abroad in search of artists who understood his vision. “In part, Bobby was our curator. He would meet artists and look at their work. He would talk with them about the site,” Carroll says.
Freeman found several artists he favored in Pietrasanta, Italy, which also happens to be the place where Michelangelo discovered the marble he used for his famous sculptures.
The artists Freeman met, many of whom are well known in the art world, were commissioned to create a piece of artwork that spoke to its chosen location.
The art is paid for with private donations and grants, and sometimes the city partners with the foundation to help fund a specific piece of art, such as the sculpture Izar, located at the intersection of Bland Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue. The city wanted a sculpture to represent the airport, and Izar was designed with “soaring lines and gleaming metal to suit its airport setting,” the foundation brochure says.
Freeman has since stepped back from the foundation and is now the board’s chair emeritus. He has turned the reigns of day-to-day operations over to Carroll, who started in 2018, and its board. The board now has site selection and curatorial committees that work to locate desirable sites throughout the city and scour the world for artists.
“The board is now creating a plan to take it to the next generation,” Carroll says.
The foundation, which has an annual budget of $165,000, has contracted with an art curator to help fulfill its mission. The goal is to place one piece of public art a year in the city.
The pieces of art are all different in looks and intention. Each was designed to highlight its space. Some are in water, some in grass and some on concrete. A sculpture named Carambola is situated in front of the Main Street Library and looks like a man doing a handstand on a huge ball. Its description says, “Balance is what this sculpture is all about, and being ready for life’s constant change.”
At the roundabout near the entrance to City Center on Thimble Shoals, there is a metal sculpture of two hands. Aptly named Handshake, the art is suitably designed for the city’s business district to show “two hands coming together in the customary sign of an agreement reached or a deal struck.”
On Warwick Boulevard, there is a big metal circular sculpture called Time. “The artist gives the intangible of time a physical form, with sweeping arcs, busy intervals and shape of no beginning and no end,” its description states. Carroll points out that the piece is placed between an elementary school and a cemetery, the perfect juxtaposition of the cycles of life.
The foundation’s most recent placement was La Luna, created in Italy and now living in a lake off Chatham Drive. There is also a work called Man and Crocodile in Newport News Park, and Selene, a beautiful marble lady, sitting serenely in Kettle Pond overlooking the James River.
Part of the foundation’s mission is to educate citizens about the art. There is a NNPAF Audio Tour App available in the Apple Store and the Google Play store that allows people to hear the artists in their own words talking about their pieces. The foundation has also worked to ensure the younger residents of Newport News learn about the art throughout the city. A take-home coloring book has been created by the foundation for second graders in Newport News that has interactive activities revolving around the artists and sculptures.
Carroll, former CEO of the Peninsula Metropolitan YMCA, is elated with the mark the foundation has made on the city and is excited about future prospects. He says the art has significantly added to the city’s cultural fabric.
“It speaks to the culture of the city,” he says. “It says that the city believes in the community. It’s an open-air gallery. That makes this city a special place. It makes it an appealing place to be.”
TO THE POINT:
Newport News Public Art Foundation
Address: 733 Thimble Shoals Blvd., Ste. 170, Newport News, VA 23606
Contact: Danny Carroll, executive director