By Blake Maddux
The Switchbox Project began 1997 in an effort to put art on the streets of Somerville. Fifteen years later, various artists have painted more than two dozen switchboxes, with many more waiting to serve as the canvas for another painter’s inspired design.
Rachel Strutt is the Program Manager for the Somerville Arts Council (SAC), with which she has been affiliated for 11 years. “As we all are here at the Arts Council, I’m a big advocate of public art,” she said. “And I think that switchboxes are a good way to transform kind of mundane objects into public works of art. So now they have a dual function. They’re functional switchboxes, but they’re also public works of art.”
The Somerville Arts Council may very well have been something of a trailblazer with the Switchbox Project. According to Strutt, “I certainly can’t say we were the first arts council or town in the country that started doing this, but since we started the Switchbox program, Cambridge, Boston, and I think now Medford have started similar programs.” Malden does as well.
The idea has not been confined to the Boston area. SAC Office Manager Heather Balchunas said that she once got a call about it from someone in Ithaca, New York.
“It was something that they had found out about and they were reaching out to us and thought it was a great project and wanted to know how we did it,” Balchunas said. “I gave them some of our applications, and said that they could adapt them however they wanted to.”
Anyone, practicing artist or not, may submit the Somerville Arts Council’s application to paint a switchbox. All interested parties must provide the location of three available switchboxes and submit images of the design that they plan to use. The application initially goes to the SAC, but the mayor’s office must sign off on it before the artist may begin his or her work.
“We report to the mayor personally,” Strutt explained. “We’re a government agency.”
Balchunas said, “We want to make sure that the designs are appropriate because it is public art. It is open to the public, so that is always a concern.”
Artists whose applications are successful receive a $100 honorarium.
Grace Durnford, a 2005 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, was a recipient of an Artist Fellowship grant, which the Somerville Arts Council awards in conjunction with Massachusetts Cultural Council. She has also been volunteering at the SAC for several years. She painted the switchbox on Holland Street this past September in order to fulfill the community benefit requirement of the fellowship award.
“I would say that 75% of the switchboxes are painted by artists who have won grants through the Arts Council,” Rachel Strutt said.
Durnford was very happy to be able to paint a switchbox that is near were she lives.
“If I had picked on farther from my house,” she said. “I’m not sure that I’d be able to do it. I had a ladder and all my supplies, which I was walking back and forth with everyday for a week.”
Durnford added, “I got a lot of attention. A lot of people with their kids stopped by to watch. People were watching it like a television serial: ‘Oh, you’ve really done a lot since yesterday!’ The level of how excited about it people were was kind of surprising.”
There is another switchbox by the firehouse across from P.J. Ryan’s in Teele Square that Durnford said that she would also like to design.
Heather Balchunas believes that the Switchbox Project benefits from being fairly simple: “It gives the community the ability to have public art with limited funds. It’s not very time-consuming, it’s easy to do, and the end result benefits everybody.”
Grace Durnford agreed, saying, “The fact that they’re decorated demonstrates that somebody cares about this public space. This isn’t just a random box. It demonstrates a level of community engagement.”
The Somerville Arts Council Switchbox application, pictures of painted boxes, and other information is available at http://www.somervilleartscouncil.org/.