Placemarking: Public Art and Emergency Preparedness
Doug Kornfeld knew he won the gig the moment someone mentioned Mardi Gras. He had just presented to the jury for New Orleans’ public art City-Assisted Evacuation marking project – dubbed “Evacuspots” – with his proposal for 14-foot-high, 850 lb stainless steel stick figures with one arm reached out in the universal sign for “I need a ride!” But what Doug, an artist based in Boston, MA, hadn’t counted on was that his design would have a perfectly iconic Big Easy connection: that of someone gesturing to have beads thrown at them on Mardi Gras.
This festive figure has a serious task, though. It’s part of a new solution for hurricane evacuation developed by the nonprofit philanthropy organization Evacuteer.org in the wake of the 2005 disaster Hurricane Katrina, which left more than 100,000 residents stranded in the city with no means of escape. Through an agreement with the City of New Orleans, Evacuteer.org recruits, trains, and manages evacuation volunteers – dubbed evacuteers – to run a system that is capable of picking up and transporting 30,000 residents to state-run shelters in the event of a necessary evacuation. The system was tested once in September 2008 in advance of Hurricane Gustav. While about 18,000 residents utilized the City-Assisted Evacuation Plan, many residents had little idea of where the pickup points were since they were marked by small, unnoticeable placards with a lot of text. So Robert Fogarty, co-founder and board president of Evacuteer.org, brought up a new idea: what better way to draw attention to the spots than with a public art piece?
Evacuteer.org decided to approach the Arts Council of New Orleans to collaborate on the idea. Morgana King, Director of Public Art, took the lead on the project for the Council. Morgana had Percent for Art funding left over from pre-Hurricane Katrina, and was looking for a way to utilize the funds in partnership with a community cause. Combining public art and emergency preparedness may not seem like an obvious choice, but as Robert Fogarty notes, “We do things differently in New Orleans. Our joyful, quirky, creative city must always be ready for another storm and intersecting art and preparedness actually seemed quite fitting.”
The Arts Council and Evacuteer.org issued a call to artists for sculptures to mark 15 of the 17 Evacuspots dotted about the city. They were looking for something iconic and simple: after sorting through 80 applicants, Doug Kornfeld was clearly their man. His work focuses on iconic figurative forms, so this project was a natural extension of his portfolio. The figures he created are friendly, memorable, and, perhaps most importantly, universally understandable. It was important that all residents – no matter their primary language or literacy level – would know where to go in case of emergency. In this sense, art was indeed the only way to label these places.
While everyone’s talking about placemaking with the arts, New Orleans has come up with something entirely new – let’s call it “placemarking” – Morgana King says. After years of meetings with city departments, property owners, and the Department of Homeland Security, the figures were unveiled on May 31, one day before the start of the 2013 hurricane season. The figures are already becoming a recognizable symbol, and the city has even allowed Doug to distribute more than 300 pins of the figurines to transit drivers to wear on their uniforms. There’s even talk of expanding the “brand” of the Evacuspot men to other parishes in Louisiana. All of this artistic ingenuity and community buzz is ensuring that if the city needs to kick into evacuation mode – hopefully not anytime soon – every resident will know to go to the friendly silver man hailing a cab to get a ride out of town.