How Public Art Happens: Part 1 – A Private-Public Art Partnership Model

There are several ways to increase the inventory of public art in Portsmouth. One way is through a private-public partnership. It’s a great complimentary tactic to Portsmouth’s Percent for Art Ordinance, the only ordinance of its kind in the state for an individual municipality. Percent for Art means that with each municipal capital project, a percentage of the overall budget, up to $150,000, will go toward public art. The downside to this ordinance is that in a relatively small city like Portsmouth, municipal projects only occur every few years.

So, a private-public project, like the Music Hall’s Chestnut Street proposal, can help fill the gap and give our city yet another way to move public art forward. I’d like to tell you how this project came into being; it’s history and context. This living example is a great way to demonstrate how a private-public partnership works.

Recently, some representatives from the Music Hall gave a presentation to the City Council about a proposed private-public partnership to make improvements to Chestnut Street (begins at the 7:45 mark). The presentation was successful in that it made it over the first hurdle of what will be a lengthy process of City approvals. That bears repeating: This is only the beginning of a lengthy approval process.

There is some history on how this proposal came to fruition. First, Portsmouth has a Master Plan which is a planning document designed to guide land use and development within Portsmouth. The City also has a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that identifies the City’s short and long-term capital improvement plans.

The Music Hall, which has already spent significant funds and energy on interior renovations to its historic building, has now turned its attention to the exterior. Whether one is a frequent visitor to the Music Hall, or simply walks past the building to get somewhere else, there is no denying it’s tucked-away location and perilous street and sidewalk situation. With approximately 100,000 visitors every year, the organization determined that the time was right to build on the success of their previous capital improvement campaigns to address the exterior safety and way-finding issues plaguing them for so long.

Over the last several years, the Music Hall leadership reviewed the City’s Master Plan goals and saw that some of their goals were similar to the City’s: improved pedestrian friendliness; more public gathering space; improved walkability; improved way-finding signage, and street and sidewalk improvements. They reached out to the City to see if there were opportunities to align these shared goals through a private-public partnership.

The presentation the City Council saw on March 21, 2016 was the culmination of years of planning. The Music Hall had done background research, communicated with the City, created a plan that aligned with the City’s own goals, and came to the table with a draft design proposal and matching funding. This proposal takes an otherwise ordinary street improvement plan, and elevates it.

The proposal has three parts:

  1. Street and sidewalk safety improvements.
  2. Restoration work on the outside of the building including replacing the original damaged marquee with a vintage-inspired marquee similar to what was there in the early 1900s.
  3. A way-finding architectural arch.

Only the street and sidewalk improvements involve funding from the City. (50% funding from the Music Hall and 50% funding from the City) The other two proposed components, the marquee and the arch, if approved, would be funded solely by the Music Hall with capital campaign funds.

The proposed arch is not load-bearing and is considered a public art element. Because the base of it sits on public property, it was referred to Art-Speak per the Public Art Referral Resolution of 2013. Art-Speak has formed a Project Planning Committee according to the criteria laid out in the Public Art Procedural Guidelines, and this group will manage this portion of the project as it makes its way through the City’s permitting and approval process.

Of course this proposal as a whole will benefit the Music Hall. This is why they have engaged in the background work and a fundraising campaign to achieve it. However, what the City gains from this partnership is extraordinary. For the cost of a regular street improvement project that addresses both pedestrian and vehicular safety, the City stands to gain:

  1. A beautification plan
  2. A public gathering space
  3. An architectural element that provides a focal point for residents and visitors
  4. Way-finding signage that directs people to many destinations throughout Portsmouth
  5. Promotion of cultural destinations off the beaten path such as the African Burying Ground, the West End arts district, and 3S Artspace


The important takeaway here is that the model of the private-public partnership is an excellent vehicle for Portsmouth to acquire more and diverse public art.  In a city that is synonymous with arts and culture, we should have a robust and individually distinct array of public art pieces that include elements of sculpture, light, water, murals, mosaics, architectural elements, and more.  Working with private partners can open the doors of innovation and design to create works of art that belong to, benefit, and inspire the whole community.

One Response to “How Public Art Happens: Part 1 – A Private-Public Art Partnership Model”

  1. Jim Splaine

    I’m very supportive of your visionary plan, and was much impressed when it was introduced to the City Council. I am not absolutely positive that I can attend on May 12th, but I will plan on it. Best of luck on your continued work.


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