A new app will put Chicago public art in the palm of your hand

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Coming soon to your smartphone.
  • Joe Levy
  • Coming soon to your smartphone.
An unlikely team comprised of a former English lit major, a retired neuroradiologist, and an IT consultant is collaborating on a smartphone app to guide people through Chicago's public-art sphere.

"The city is missing a very important point about itself,” says Ed McDevitt, who studied literature way back when and now serves as the executive director of Public Art Chicago, a fledgling nonprofit with a lofty mission: to showcase the treasure trove of creative masterpieces scattered throughout Chicago. McDevitt and his team of ten volunteers have spent the past four years cataloguing pieces and developing the free Public Art Chicago app, which they plan to release next month.

"If you accumulate all of this stuff and make the collection available, it makes Chicago a completely different kind of art destination," he says.

Their goal is simple in concept: make Chicago's public art accessible to as many people as possible through walking tours. Each tour lasts about an hour and spans two miles. Initially, they'll release the app with two tours and about 30 objects, with ten more tours coming down the pipeline by the end of the year.

"The app is like a pocket guide or a Michelin guide book," says Joe Flowers, chief technical officer and IT entrepreneur. He, McDevitt, neuroradiologist turned photog Joe Levy, and a handful of other volunteers, have built the app from the ground up. They'll showcase well-known Chicago art attractions like the Bean, of course, but they'll also highlight underappreciated works of art, the kinds of pieces "generally unknown to all but art aficionados and Chicago history buffs," McDevitt says. In Bronzeville, home to one of the first few walking tours, you'll be able to check out pieces like the "Louis and Lil" bench, a work by Ted Sitting Crow Garner that's dedicated to Louis Armstrong and his wife, or the McCullough "Walk of Fame," a commemoration of African-American culture.

It's important to the team to draw attention to the city's tucked-away gems, but there have been bumps along the way. Their first hurdle was going digital—all of the information about public art is down on good old-fashioned paper, so typing it all up was a time-consuming, carpal tunnel-inducing task. Once that was underway, they were able to start developing the mobile app itself. And then there was the question of what to include. Does someone's backyard creation qualify? What about a tag? Right now, they're sticking with more traditional examples, commissioned works and those with some degree of permanence.

Public Art Chicago has gathered everything from the photos in slideshows to the artist information. For each tour, there's a variety of filters, making it possible, for example, to sort out everything that doesn't qualify as Civil War art. Or as Great Migration art. It's for culture consumers, people who aren't necessarily art historians but can appreciate art when they see it.

"The strategy is to march through each neighborhood," Flowers says. For starters, you can parade from Pilsen to Humboldt Park to Bucktown. It opens with a basic Chicago street map, with photo pinpoints of pieces. Start a tour, and the Public Art Chicago app will direct you to the closest object and then take you around to the other destinations from there. With the help of geofencing (when your phone knows where you are and tells the app to do its thing), an audio clip plays when you're on a tour and in front of a piece of art. It's very NPR meets art museum.

It's been difficult, and it's also been expensive. Most of the project has been self-funded and the guys are vying for foundation funding, but they've also placed a "donate" button in the app with the hope that users will give a little too. Going forward, Public Art Chicago hopes to integrate their work into into programs at CPS, charter schools, and area universities.

When the iPhone app is released in November, you can expect a handful of tours at first and more content coming in waves. An Android version will follow shortly.

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