Rendering of 'Current: LA River' in Los Angeles (image courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies)

Rendering of ‘Current: LA River’ in Los Angeles (image courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies)

On Tuesday Bloomberg Philanthropies, a foundation established by media billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, named Gary, Indiana, Los Angeles, Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy in New York state as the recipients of its inaugural Public Art Challenge grants. The grants, which mayors of any US city with more than 30,000 residents could apply for, will provide up to $1 million toward the realization of each project over the next two years. The grants are intended to catalyze the public art projects, covering some of their preparatory and execution costs, but not all expenses.

The two most prominent motifs in the winning projects are the reuse of abandoned buildings or derelict urban spaces, and light. Both are present in the most large-scale of the four projects, artist Adam Frelin and architect Barbara Nelson’s Breathing Lights, which will involve the illumination of the street-facing windows in some 300 vacant and abandoned houses in Albany, Schenectady, and Troy. The slowly brightening and fading lights will create the impression that the buildings are breathing. In addition to the two- or three-month public illuminations, the project will conclude with “a regional summit on vacant homes and abandoned buildings to engage local residents, prospective buyers and investors, and policy makers,” which sounds a little like a gentrification strategy meeting, but will hopefully be a more enlightened gathering.

Another winning project that will turn a vacant building into a civic center — with the help of the artist whose practice revolves around such acts of urban reclamation, Theaster Gates — is Gary, Indiana’s ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen. In addition to three new artworks commissioned for the building, the project will be organized around a community kitchen and culinary institute. (The ArtHouse project also received a $650,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in March.) Also making adaptive reuse of undervalued urban spaces, the City of Los Angeles will put its Public Art Challenge grant money toward commissioning 15 new artworks as part of the city’s inaugural Public Art Biennial. Works will be installed at sites throughout the city that call attention to local environmental issues, including alongside the Los Angeles River. And lastly, another grantee of the luminescent persuasion is Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light, a project by artist Erwin Redl that will take place during National Night Out, an annual event aimed at improving relations between communities and their police departments. With the goal of improving public safety, Redl will create LED installations in city-owned spaces in five Spartanburg neighborhoods.

In all 237 municipalities submitted proposals for the Public Art Challenge grants, about half of them are in towns with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. Visual art proposals accounted for the lion’s share (61%) of projects seeking Bloomberg Philanthropies grants, while 19% were multi-disciplinary, 17% incorporated digital media, and just 3% proposed performing arts projects.

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...