Home > Feature > Please Stop Painting The Electrical Boxes (A Public Art Proposal)

Please Stop Painting The Electrical Boxes (A Public Art Proposal)

You’ve probably seen one. Stopped at an intersection, it’s hard to miss a large, cheerfully painted metal box on the corner. For some reason, decorating these electrical boxes, which are generally about the size of a small refrigerator, has become a global trend in the last decade. City governments on every continent seem to love hiring artists for this. They cite reasonable-sounding arguments like “it’s a low-cost, high visual impact project” and “it beautifies neighborhoods” and “it helps instill civic pride.”

Painted electrical boxes from Calgary

In Houston, the underlying idea for our local box-painting effort is that it “converts blight into art by painting the blank canvases around the city.” What’s not to love?

Well for starters, when have you ever looked at a blank electrical box on the street and thought, “Gee, I wish someone with moderate artistic skills would paint a toucan on that?” For that matter, when have you ever thought about a blank electrical box at all? Consider how, undecorated, these things disappear into the urban landscape. They aren’t “blight” — certainly not in the way that litter or abandoned buildings are. Electrical boxes are something you probably never noticed, until your local municipality started decorating them.

I think this bizarre trend has less to do with beautification than it does with cities wanting to take control of street art, to make it sanctioned, palatable, institutional, and toothless.

Painted electrical boxes in Taipei

But it also speaks to our ingrained prejudice towards the urban landscape as being “unnatural.” We admire mountain vistas that appear untouched by humans, but our highways, skyscrapers, and even landfills are every bit as natural as a beaver dam or an anthill. Sure, what we create is oftentimes harmful to ourselves and to the environment. But our cities are natural — because we are nature.

But we don’t see it that way, and so we feel the need to embellish things unnecessarily. In any landscape, your eye naturally edits out the unimportant stuff. I argue that we should allow certain structures in our cities to remain invisible. People aren’t necessarily asking for decoration in their lives, and one man’s beautification is another man’s visual imposition. None of the arguments for painting electrical boxes answers the basic question: Does our attention need to be drawn to these things? It’s like the Cow Parade: it seems fun until you realize it’s really not. Today, no self-respecting city would put public funds towards plopping a bunch of decorated fiberglass cows around town. And I predict that the fad for spiffing up electrical boxes will seem similarly cheesy in the near future.

Admittedly, this is pretty terrific.

Of course, there are doubtless those who don’t agree with me. I got into trouble on Instagram recently for criticizing a similar effort involving a particularly ugly stretch of highway in Houston.

As a growing city, we have many sparkling new — or newly refurbished — highways, so this filthy, charmless bit of road is something of an anomaly. The bridges spanning it are edged with chain-link fencing, which by design is virtually transparent and empty. But somebody in Houston thought it would be a good idea to insert colorful plastic strips into that void. (Apparently the project, which originally involved images by local schoolchildren, was botched by TXDot, which insisted on a bland abstract design.) What this muddled, too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen effort ended up with is essentially lipstick on a pig. Before, you didn’t notice how dirty the pig was, because you weren’t being asked to look at it.

If public art is going to dominate the visual landscape, it’s got to be so great that most people enjoy the experience of it. And it’s also got to make sense. If not, you’re just foisting stuff on people. To me, these decorated freeway overpasses are just as incongruous as a Jeff Koons would be in the middle of Yellowstone Park.

Of course, ultimately the worst of all this is not the effect on the viewers or the urban landscape. It’s the effect on the artists themselves.

No artist ever woke up one morning and spontaneously said, “I sure wish I could decorate an electrical box!” or “I sure feel like decorating a pre-cast cow sculpture!” But if any eager young artist has attended a seminar on having a career, they know they have to look for paid opportunities to do something that at least sort of resembles making art. They are happy at the prospect of getting paid something — rates vary wildly from city to city, but in Houston it’s $750 — and so they gamely send in their proposal for how they would decorate an electrical box, even though that is probably the last thing they would choose to do if they had their druthers.

Good artists make their best work when they’re given as much freedom as possible to design their project. Just imagine if every city in America stopped asking artists to decorate electrical boxes, or parking meters, or garbage trucks, or freeway overpasses, and instead started sending out this public art brief: 

Hello. We want art. We want the best art we can possibly get. We’ve got some money to pay for it. 

We will accept any proposal. Any length of time, any budget: permanent to impermanent. From a marble statue, to a performance crawling up a sidewalk. 

BUT KEEP IN MIND we do not have unlimited resources, and we do not have unlimited staff. What we DO have is unlimited openness to your ideas for making our city awesome. Look around and tell us what you think. Shock us. Surprise Us. Challenge Us. Hit us with your best shot. 

We accept $1,000 proposals; we accept $1,000,000 (or more) proposals. We may or may not accept any proposal we receive this year if none of them are right. It depends, mostly on the concept but also on feasibility.

Let’s amaze and delight people.  

Let’s change the way we see the world.

Good luck.


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88 Responses

  1. Bobby Bacon

    Thank you. Mural fever is wearing me out – and I like the mural gang – but does it have to be on every flat surface? Time to give it a rest.

    1. This is beyond ignorant. If you are truly a public artist, then you are in the art business. You don’t walk around in a beret and smock with a pallette. It is a form of construction job, a proposal is made, and if it gets accepted, you do the job. For some, it is more than they ever dreamed they wkuld make. I have done a cow, I have done 5 large guitars. They didn’t make me rich, but they did prople me into a place of comfort. Public are serves a purpose. That light box tou hate so much may have fed a family for a while.

      1. Pablo lugo

        Art must be drawn . At the time decided by the pulse of the artist . Art must be painted , at the feeling and need of the artist . Art must be , wether on a rock , on bodies , or on sand , art must not last but it should be eternal .

      1. Pablo Lugo

        Then paint in black and white , stop using the colors of this world and leave them to the ones that don’t feel dread over using them .

  2. Artist

    Another article from someone who isn’t an artist having an opinion about something that has nothing to do with you.

    As an artist who appreciates civic art and has participated in the mini-mural project, it was my chance to make the city of Houston a better place. Your griping is obnoxious. Your ignorance is obnoxious. It’s not your work – it’s the work of artists – many of whom struggle to make ends meet in a city with limited opportunities and much competition.

    In the words of Kendrick Lamar: “Be humble…Sit down.” You know the rest.

    1. Another Artist

      She is not an artist but definitely knows more about it than most ‘Artists.’ People name call when they don’t have a good argument to make. Using the Humble lyric is innapropriate in this forum.

  3. Chelby King

    Here’s some reasons why there’s nothing wrong with painting the electrical boxes, Rainey.
    1. In addition to ‘beautifying’ the built environment, public art invests $ in contemporary artists. Small projects allow artists, at all levels, access to public commission opportunities.
    2. An artwork that is literally and intellectually accessible to a wide public doesn’t make it bad.
    3. I agree that most of the painted electrical boxes are unsuccessful; so be it.
    4. Public $ is spent on the arts with input from the ‘stakeholders’– and is placed somewhere in the public realm. Private money can be spent however the source chooses–perhaps following your idea for a call for proposals–and lots of bad art is commissioned that way, too.
    5. Many talented artists have made good work–even their best work–within strict guidelines.
    6. And just as an aside, I like the Jeff Koons sculpture in a prairie. Similar to the Ingmar&Dragset Prada store in a West Texas desert, incongruity is what made it interesting.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      Chelby, thanks for the reply. A few thoughts:

      1. Investing $ in contemporary artists is something I wholeheartedly support.
      2. Agreed 100% — indeed, I think the greatest works of art succeed because they resonate with anybody.
      3. Personally, I can’t live with “so be it.”
      4. Unfortunately, yes, there is bad art everywhere. Good art is the exception. Great art is rare.
      5. Just because talented artists can make anything work doesn’t mean they should have to.
      6. Well, I am glad to have seen Old Faithful before the site acquired any contemporary art. As for the Prada store, I think it’s the contemporary version of Marie Antoinette’s fake shepherd cabin. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

      1. Keery Melonson


        Those boxes are boring and grey.

        Who thinks they should be painted?

        I do. I thought about the idea when I was a kid. I always thought, “Why isn’t there some art here while I’m waiting at the bus stop?” “Why is this city so goddamned ugly and boring looking”.

        Thank art you aren’t in charge of what art goes where. Stick to writing. Stay away from art.

  4. Hampton

    I agree with you 100%. “…undecorated, these things disappear into the urban landscape…” I’ve thought this many times myself as I’ve driven around Dallas I never noticed the boxes until suddenly I see what looks like an oversized discarded suntan lotion container next to some neo-urban-classical mcmansion townhome. I had one once in the front yard of one of my homes in suburbia. I planted a bushy crepe myrtle on the street side and a mid-sized juniper on my front window view side and never noticed it again. The plants are still there, btw, bushier and hiding it even better after all these years.

  5. Chuy

    How easily you’ve forgotten Houston a mere 5-10 years ago with absolutely no public mural art to speak of. So many other cities and countries do amazing work at commissioning murals and beautifying the city, while Houston just did nothing, probably because everyone is in such a damn rush and doesn’t look at the urban landscape much. Houston has realized it’s needed to catch up with “trends” as you call them, and this is a chance to add more local flavor to the local space. Your proposal is like asking for a revolution without dance. Lighten up and stop raining on the parade!

  6. Pen Morrison

    Agreed, but you will still have a small group of people “selecting” proposals, and that as we know is always a crap shoot. I like the wording of your proposal very much.
    On the other hand, it appears that some of the boxes are done by younger less experienced artists that may have never been accepted anywhere, so maybe the project will give them the confidence to move on and up. Who knows.

  7. Katie Mulholland

    Heh. This is funny.

    My 2 cents: We are all familiar with the fact that Houstonians are really supportive of the arts. Especially the tacky stuff. Historically. I mean look at the art car phenomenon, that God awful “Creation of Adam” super bowl mural, the Love wall on 19th, the “buiscut paint” mural on westheimer…. I mean, for real. It’s a thing. It doesn’t mean it’s bad art. It’s low brow. I personally might not like all of it and its certainly not always the most attractive. Art cars aside, most of it says very little about anything except for the hashtags plastered all over it (at least these days). And to boot it’s public. It’s all there because it’s accessible, “different”, sometimes interesting, and ultimately someone had more balls than you or I to do it.

    Also, to make a general and broad sweeping statement: houstonians don’t really like paying for art (note: properly). This isnt a notion unique to this city… its a general public thing. *Almost* every Joe Schmoe who wants a mural painted on their business or residence is looking for a “deal”. Ie. how can I get this orgiginal thing but have it like Etsy so artists feel like they must compete to have the lowest prices on an original item they (may or may not) have skillfully produced. Also fuck Etsy. Anyone who collects/patron (aka people who know better)- would scoff at this notion, I understand: this song is not about you. And as much as I cringe every time I pass the electrical box with a bomb pop popsicle that appears to be a very erect dog penis (and yes… its playing with a kitty cat) on my way to work, there is merit to the program that produced this… this thing. It’s pretty incredible actually. This program (at the least for this project) is keen to this novel idea of actually compensating artists for their time… and paying fairly well. Something that some of the non profits here only became (somewhat) more saavy to in practice about 3-4 years ago (note: also, thank you). Remember those city wide non profit meetings and seminars that pushed WAGE? $750 to paint the electrical boxes is no joke for something that small. These guys walked away with a pretty good deal. If more organisations *consistantly* found a way to compensate artists like this, they’d probably be making better work and more of it…. and working in a more competitive environment. Also it would publicly perpetuate the idea that art and artists have value, can make artwork that changes the world, and in fact are worth paying properly… just like any other trained or experienced specialist. In doing so it would raise the bar of our city’s public art (and art in general). Talented artists and visionaries would have the time to do one of the few things they are good at… like not being your crappy waiter or bartender.

    Bottom line: if you want to see better public art in this city, compensate your public-art artists better to create a more competitive environment. It’s not like we are short on incredible street artists… just incredible artists not working 2-3 jobs to support what they are really good at. If you don’t want to see something anymore, consider becoming a board member and contributing the decisions being made on these matters.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      Katie, thanks for the thoughtful reply. FWIW, I would never suggest that ‘lowbrow’ equals mediocre. Goodness knows there’s plenty of terrible ‘highbrow’ art out there.

    2. Chris Cascio

      and a $500 supply stipend as well, I believe. $1250 total for that square footage is a grip.

      my 1 cent: Some of those things make me cringe. My studio mate has painted quite a few, and he can bang them out in no time, and they are all FIRE paintings. I’ve been very tempted to apply, ‘cuz Lord knows I could use the money, but it doesn’t seem right for me (I don’t like lots of rules and oversight). Also I don’t want to be lumped in with macaws, butterflies and a literal depiction of a paintbrush and palette.

      but yeah, anything facilitating paying artists a living wage to do what they do is A-OK in my book.

    3. Robert Pena

      Katie Mulholland and Chris Cascio should do an electrical box or two. I have admired their work for awhile. Their abstractions would be a nice counterpoint to the current batch of work.

  8. Well, these things are blight. They attract garbage and scrawled graffiti. The one right outside my window is a popular place for bums and barflies to take a leak.

    Most of the paintings on them seem pretty charmless. But not all of them. I like the one at the corner of McGowan and Fannin, for example.

    And it’s easier to commission artists to paint those than the utopian alternative that you propose. I wish they’d come and paint ours. I recommend solid matte black.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      Fair enough, but the only reason the alternative I propose is utopian is because humans choose to make it so.

  9. Maureen Demar Hall

    If one of these boxes brings out a smile in someone, why not? It’s better than a bland gray box any day……

  10. Ben

    It makes people smile and that is all that matters I would think. It lets artist’s work be seen by thousands daily. I’m sure they would rather have that than the alternative.
    This article sounds like it is a cry for attention. If you look at anything long enough, you can find a problem with it. Not even going to read the name of the author.

  11. Wayne Wilden

    I guess I get how your article is supposed to be inspiring but you sound like a sour puss to me. I look at the electrical box art the way I look at a fountain or a tree placed in my city. It might not be what I like or but to criticize it is to miss the point. Houston is flat and monochromatic and dull. The boxes provide a little personality to neighborhoods. They’ve been done elsewhere. Who cares? You hate fiberglass cow art? Really? Isn’t the cow art for children or schools or something? You sound really mean.

    I personally don’t care for the big brass realistic cowboy sculptures , you see them in Dallas and around NRG Stadium. They are not my cup of tea but someone took great care to make them and I can tell some people like them or they wouldn’t be there.

    Not all art is for everyone. But more art is better than none.

  12. I am still trying to see how we go from urban landscapes as described, “highways, skyscrapers, and even landfills being every bit as natural as a beaver dam or an anthill” to decorative embellishments somehow being an unnatural part of that mix? Just wondering where one should draw the line between these? Do we only see a beaver damn or anthill as functional? Is that our urban environment as well? You make some good points, but feel the meaning kind of misses the mark. I have also seen a few less than spectacular murals on some of these boxes, but being not of the ideal world where our city just offers artists money for whatever art they are passionately producing, artists, myself included, see this as an opportunity to not only enjoy reaping some monetary reward for our effort, but are encouraged to help improve a neighborhood environment by bringing art to a community where there is often little or next to none. If guidelines are set to better control the quality of craftsmanship regarding this project, it seems there could be little objection to an occasional, electric box mural.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      This is a good comment, and fair. I made an inelegant logical leap in this piece that sounded like an argument for not paying attention to whether cities are visually pleasing, which is not what I meant. What I meant is that people mistake something that’s manmade and banal (an electrical box) for urban blight, when in fact it’s no more interesting or uninteresting per se than anything you’d see in a “natural” landscape, and therefore doesn’t need to be embellished any more than a tree does.

      Also: Houston today is a far cry from the grubby city of my childhood, which is a good thing. Back then, we would have marveled at the bayou paths and cafes, the elegant tree-lined shopping boulevards, even the idea that a traffic intersection might be attractive as well as functional, or that a toy store shouldn’t be next door to a porn theater. These are all beautification efforts that have succeeded, because they didn’t confuse design for art.

  13. Bradley Dean Whyte

    If we were all Zen masters, maybe we could easily see beauty in a tan-colored electrical box as equally as we do a tree. In the meantime, there is certainly room for it all. We can scoff at whatever shallow or unconscious motivations we think might drive an organization to pursue and fund such an endeavor, but if there’s confusion over whether or not it’s art… well, that’s not really as problematic as confusing the merit of manufactured objects (that carry no inherent artful design beyond that which makes it merely functional) with the merit of a natural landscape. It’s a clever argument that humans are part of nature and therefore anything we make is “natural”. But by that logic, we could say the painted designs are also natural because someone made those too. Or what could be wrong with the dystopian vision of an urban landscape devoid of trees…. filled with concrete and car exhaust? But, lest I am accused of making any straw-man arguments, I’ll entertain the idea that functionally designed man-made objects hold the same interest as a nice tall sycamore tree. But then I am left with the question: what happens when the manufactured object no longer serves the function? It becomes waste. Like an abandoned eye-sore of a building that was built with no attention to beauty. But a dead tree isn’t waste, and it’s still beautiful… it just goes back where it came from and is naturally recycled. If we have to have tan-colored boxy metal all over the city, I don’t see any harm in attempting to make them more fun to look at. Some are better than others but, eh… they’re all better that this city’s fetish for Rothko-esque, minimalist design. It’s too bad people have a problem with this. It’s a very weird thing to target. Especially the week all the applications are due for the next round of city mural assignments. If we are to comment on the small amount of people that make choices for what’s funded to be on public display, maybe it would be of more significance to question Houston nepotism and how the names of individuals on the various arts organization keep popping on more than one board. Sometimes three boards or more. Finally, I suspect this won’t change your mind, Ms. Knudson. Many of the boxes are tacky-looking, I won’t deny it… but the reasons you’ve given for trying to articulate what exactly it is that bugs you about them just don’t make and sense to me at all.

  14. Al

    This article is the equivalent of an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. Give me a break, man. How about you find something else to complain about instead of actually adding to the conversation…. wonder if you should change your pen name to Negative Nancy.

  15. >> “Gee, I wish someone with moderate artistic skills would paint a toucan on that?”

    The first dead give-away is your use of the adjective “moderate”. Who is to determine that? You? The editor of Art Forum? How about Larry Gagosian or Philippe de Montebello?

    Sorry. No sale. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    >> “I think this bizarre trend has less to do with beautification than it does with cities wanting to take control of street art, to make it sanctioned, palatable, institutional, and toothless.”

    Well, what would make it UNpalatable and give it tooth? Images of child sex slavery? Heroin addiction? Homelessness? — all of which we have right here in Houston.

    Or maybe you mean something else. Maybe you REALLY want to stick it to The Man with an in-your-face pencil scribble from Cy Twombly.

    >> “…one man’s beautification is another man’s visual imposition.”

    This is the crux of your argument, but how are we to know who is right?

    You must be channeling David Hume, who — in 1757 — wrote: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to [the] valuable character [of a true judge]; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty”. Hume thought there are only a handful of such people in the entire world. You wouldn’t happen to be one of those True Judges, would you?

    >> “If public art is going to dominate the visual landscape, it’s got to be so great that most people enjoy the experience of it.”

    But many people DO think it’s great, as is demonstrated by the comments to your own post.

    >> “And it’s also got to make sense.”

    Art has to make sense? Oooooooo-K.

    >> “No artist ever woke up one morning and spontaneously said, “I sure which I could decorate an electrical box!”

    Wrong. People have adorned buildings, transportation, and other public facilities for a long, long time. One of my personal favorites is the Austrian painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who did a fabulous job with public toilets and thermal power plants.

    And now, last but not least, we have your proposal, which is wonderful. I’ll drink to that.

    Ain’t gonna happen, but I’ll still drink to it.

  16. liz

    It’s a shame that this is your perspective. Houston is so far behind most other large cities when it comes to fostering new artistic talent. As someone who claims to support the arts, why are you not excited that there is an opportunity to showcase new talent and a chance for artists who might not get much exposure to be noticed? Sure, uncommissioned street art can be raw and challenging in a way that city/community projects cannot, but I would argue that cities need spaces to welcome alternative artists. Houston especially has limited art spaces where artists, particularly new artists, can really showcase their work. The mini murals project is, in my opinion, a welcome opportunity to get to see work by artists who would not be featured at the MFAH, Menil, or the Contemporary Arts Museum (for example). Are all of the mini murals exceptional pieces of art? In an objective sense, probably not. But just because something is not objectively great does not mean that it isn’t worth viewing/experiencing, nor does it mean that it isn’t compelling to someone. Not all of the masterpieces speak to me in the same way, and there are recognized “inferior” works that move me deeply. I know some people who hate the “Be Someone” graffiti, but I know even more people who are emotionally uplifted each time they see it. Surely the point is to be exposed to new ideas and aesthetics, and to embrace opportunities to inspire and be inspired, which can only make us (and our city) richer as a result?

  17. Harely

    Never lighten up and always critique. Houston should be spearheading public art ideas not copying sad programs from smaller cities. These “mini murals” are not original. We love jobs for artists, but using tax dollars to spread mediocre paintings around the city is weak.


    Side note: Get these decision makers to the Menil, that is free, or have them get an hours worth of art at the MFAH on a Thursday, also free. Or when they are traveling maybe they should show up early and look around the airport, growing public art collection there, and for the most part not crappy.

  18. Joel Mielke

    I’m sure that the turgid bureaucracy that issues permits for these amateur projects will only choose “the best and the brightest,” right?

  19. You need to get a life

    I couldn’t even read the entire article. It was so ridiculously assenine. “Landfills are nature because WE are nature” I honestly thought it was a joke piece.

  20. Dayum. I thought I was grumpy, but at least I can appreciate someone trying to improve the landscape. I hate to imagine what this person would have thought in ’76 when painting fire hydrants was encouraged? Or maybe this person WAS around for it – and griping.

  21. Leslie

    I love them. I may not necessarily like one of the paintings, but it still makes me smile. I guess I am the only one that does notice the gray boxes. I always have. They are ugly. The first painted one I saw make me excited.
    I notice street signs, telephone poles, and sidewalks. I get excited to see when one is not normal.
    I love the art car parade, all the street art, the beer can house, and the cows. That is one of the things I love about Houston.
    Please don’t stop painting the boxes and making fiberglass animals and painting walls.

  22. Dave

    Advocating for less art, good or bad, is a strange position for an arts magazine to take. Advocating for less color in an urban landscape is even more odd. And is the author in favor of graffiti? Because street art isn’t always great, even if the risk associated with making it makes it hipper than publicly sanctioned/commissioned work. This feels almost as if it could have been written by a conservative seeking to take funding away from artists. I can’t help but wonder what the author’s electrical box painting would look like if she was forced to do one. A true artist can take an electrical box or some electrical tape and make something interesting. Perhaps you just want better art on the boxes. Maybe advocate for more funding and better artists to paint them, rather than for some abstract open proposal which will never happen?

  23. Fleece

    Dave, Leslie, and the bunch that think pinos palette is a good thing for art- the article is about this program being mediocre. The author doesn’t say she hates color, Dave. Because something makes you smile doesn’t make it art, Leslie. Imagine, 1510, someone is looking up at the progress of the Sistine Chapel and demands that Michelangelo throw some flowers up in there to make them happy. Liz, the artists who get a chance to put subpar painted imagery on the boxes will most likely never get a shot a the Menil, MFAH or the like; for starters name me one that is in a local gallery. It is sad to see a bunch of art minded people not accept criticism, it is much needed in this state. If you only knew how a bulk of these decisions are made for public art it would blow your mind, i.e. GRB or a number of weak projects gutted by councilmembers or stakeholders from Austin to San Antonio.

    1. Leslie

      Fleece, You seem to have misunderstood my point. The point is, some people do enjoy the street art. Not everyone does. But many appreciate the artists, the work, and personality it adds.
      And isn’t part of the definition of art that it causes an emotional reaction, an appreciation?
      Yes, the street art makes me happy. Even the paintings that I don’t like make me feel happy. Someone expressed his or herself. I think that’s cool. Again, I don’t like some of the paintings, but I like that someone painted their idea, within certain bounds, I don’t doubt, but still, their talent, skill, and creativity.
      Please don’t belittle my opinion because I don’t agree with yours. The Sistine Chapel? I personally don’t like that painting, in part because Michelangelo didn’t want to do it. I find it tacky to force an artist to paint something he doesn’t want to. But I can find a lot to admire and I am glad it is there.
      But I would never suggest someone change THEIR art for me. But the plain gray boxes are not any artists’ vision. They are blank spaces.

    2. Dave

      Fleece, my point is that Rainey should advocate for better artwork on the electrical boxes, not less artwork. With more funding and a more selective panel, the project could be wonderful. And, while I doubt the 21st century Michelangelo lives in Houston, a talented artist could make something wonderful on an electrical box, a roll of toilet paper, or a shoe horn. The artists are mediocre, it’s not an issue of it being a bad concept. This article reads to me as half-baked griping, not criticism.

  24. Steven

    In Long Beach we are allowing murals in almost every alley and I think it’s great, we also have electrical boxes that are painted, keep up the art, this article is just plain wrong!

  25. david sokolec

    The day before reading your commentary, I was driving around with a friend and we were looking at the new electrical box paintings which have suddenly popped up like a skin rash all over El Paso. They remind me of shelves stuffed with figurines -tchotchkes on the urban lndscape. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them, and artists getting paid is always desirable, but a city shouldn’t consider this a substitute for a sustained effort to promote serious public art.

  26. As I search for the purpose of art and value to society, I have to remove the personal preferences, biases and naïve opinions, or any opinions for that matter. If art serves as a tool to reflect us back to ourselves and create new thoughts or generate a dialog, discussion or debate, then I would say this public art project is a huge success. I would guess the artist is agnostic to the resulting reactions and personal preferences. Whether the work is “good,” I’ll leave that critique to those much smarter than me. The article does a masterful job of perpetuating and I might even say, facilitating the discussion. To the point of understanding the art, I will always question the viewer’s credibility when the artist’s intention is not fully considered as the primary factor in judging the art. Design, fine art, embellishment, graffiti or simple decoration, does it matter? We’re talking about art.

  27. L. Carpenter

    The painted boxes make a dull day just a little more plesant. ANYTHING that does that in Houston is to be greatly appreciated. And it beats the heck out of the graffitti I’ve seen in the past

  28. After driving by an offensively insipid version of one of the electrical boxes I thought, Rainey has a point, but then I passed the one I see every day that is colorful, beautifully executed and represents the artist’s work well. Maybe this program would be less offensive if the quality of work was better or if the artists did works that looked like their paintings, etc. Wouldn’t it be cool to see an electric box by your favorite blue-chip-gallery Houston painter while you waited at that damn light that never seems to change? (I am not being facetious!). You know, instead of badly painted toucans. Yes, money could be better spent on something more grandiose but this is what we have right now. And what about other public art projects that beautify the banal such as the garbage truck thing and the parking meter thing? Do we need to get rid of those too?

    I for one am applying for the thing because: 1) I think it would be cool to have one of my paintings on an electric box that people would hopefully enjoy seeing, hopefully, 2) I could count it as a public commission on my CV, and 3) $$$ for making art which I especially need now that I no longer have a day job.

  29. Timbergrove walker

    “They aren’t “blight” — certainly not in the way that litter or abandoned buildings are. Electrical boxes are something you probably never noticed, until your local municipality started decorating them.”

    They are blight when gang markers are scrawled on them, or graffiti is covered over by a roller of uncomplimentary paint.
    IMHO this is an opportunity to impress youth by favorable example, rather than by intimidation. It doesn’t have to be great, but well meaning.

    This article is boorish.

  30. Paul

    I find this article akin to those that are actively proud and vocal about never seeing an episode of Game of Thrones. So what? Your dismissal doesn’t effect my enjoyment.

    1. That is a clever analogy, Paul.

      Here is my take on that and how it pertains to art. If you enjoy patriarchal, quasi science fiction nonsense, that is your deal, you can watch that in your home. This doesn’t eliminate the fact that Game of Thrones is not a sophisticated program, and it is not really meant for the overall public. Exposing taxpayers and visitors, while using public funds, to low-art is not engaging Texans or our guests in an interesting way.

      Borrowing a cheeky idea, and exciting a few people who like shinny things will not put Houston on the map for visual culture. Lets step our game up.

  31. Oh my goodness! As a public art coordinator for a Texas municipality (the City of Grand Prairie), I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this discussion. It scared me too. I’m actually shaking as I type. I found this discussion while looking for ways to publicize a Call to Artists to paint traffic signal boxes in Grand Prairie. It’s taken a year to put this project together and there are LOTS of people to please.

    It’s not our first foray into public art. We have a percent for art program and a percent for streetscaping program that enables us to include art on bridges and other transportation facilities. I realize the author may not approve.

    I don’t know if y’all can even imagine the pressure to “get it right” for what feels like the future of public art in a community, especially in these current times. There’s so much at stake.

    Let me add that our project was put forward by a community leader who saw such boxes in other communities. That opened the door for our art program to host such a project. Our community is so behind where art goes. We have no galleries, no museums and no public transportation. A project like this could open peoples’ minds to how art can brighten a community.

    I really loved the comments. Honestly, I need to re-read through some to make sure I understood what the authors were saying. I’ve learned a lot from this thread that will hopefully make me a better art coordinator. I do like the open proposal idea and will consider that as we develop our city beautification master plan, which will include our public art master plan. I’m a dreamer and I’m blessed to work in a community with leadership that’s open minded, at least for now.

    Our Traffic Signal Box Public Art project must be a success for some of the bigger visions to happen. Mediocre boxes just won’t help us succeed. I don’t think any art program wants mediocrity. I’ve been studying similar projects from around the country and even other parts of the world. I’ve even contacted Up Art Studio and others in Houston. We must have skillful art on the boxes. We have funding for 20 boxes at $2,000 each, which includes $250 for supplies.

    Interestingly, we had to research the materials due to the functioning electrical equipment in the traffic signal boxes. We had to gain the approval of our transportation officials and even our environmental officials. Another behind-the-scenes logistic relates to the legal components of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. I share all that to say that while putting the art on the traffic signal boxes may not seem like a big deal, it really is.

    We hope our project will provide some more opportunities for Texas artists, both experienced and emerging. We hope the art that’s submitted and that wins will be skillful, beautiful and pleasing. We hope our project will help our own public art program gain respect and even more future opportunities. I could say so much more, but I’ll stop with these hopes… Considering the author’s distain for such projects, I respectfully hope we can list our Call to Artists (launches Monday, August 7, 2017) with Glasstire.com or that there’s some way to connect the Call with the artists on your list. Lastly, I hope some of you will enter the competition and submit skillful, beautiful proposals. Tammy Chan – tchan@gptx.org.

  32. Daniel Wilson

    Personally I love them. It breaks up the monotony of the roads in town. When you are stopped at a light it is something to glance over at for a moment.

    My partner is in private aviation sales and has an office at Hobby Airport and actually went and took pictures of all the painted boxes along Broadway near Hobby and had them all framed and put in his office.

  33. Lisa M

    Usually these boxes get tagged, or stickered and do not look “invisible” that way. Art is beautiful, if you do not like it, look away.

  34. Robert Pena

    I can’t believe the inane subjects that awaken the comment machine around here! My God – just start responding in emoticons and get it over with! Good Art/Bad Art? Duchamp settled that fallacy long ago. 🙂

  35. s0fa

    I can’t even follow your argument or solution regarding this topic.
    “If public art is going to dominate the visual landscape, it’s got to be so great that most people enjoy the experience of it. And it’s also got to make sense.” <– since when does art answer to preferences or has to "make sense"? These paintings on electrical boxes are just a small gestures of community. And how can you compare an electrical box painting to a postmodern bull sculpture? That's like comparing sidewalk chalk art to the Bean in Chicago.

  36. toasty

    My word, the author is a party pooper.
    It’s art, and yes, your original premise and question “Do you even notice the electrical boxes” Yes, yes I do. I am happy the city is spending a little money to make them pretty.
    I suspect by your account we should also do away with all sculpture?
    Anything that depicts art at all?
    Should we also only accept buildings designed in the brutalist style?
    Could some of the boxes be more tastefully done? Sure, but my vision of what is appealing and what is art is different from your own, besides variety is the spice of life, and that’s what we’re trying to get towards anyway with making these bland green boxes canvasses.

  37. Tax paying art collector

    “If you don’t like” if you don’t like it to look away”, Lisa M, that’s your argument and rebuttal? Did you vote for a certain celebrity real estate mogul?

    By the way, after reading the Chronicle response to this,- which looks like it was provoked straight from the mayors office- it is a shame that they call Molly an art critic. Please Glasstire don’t edit this from your comments, it’s not an insult to Molly, it’s a critique to the Chronicle and to the city itself for only having one art writer in the fourth largest city in the country.

    1. Government teet sucker

      We have ourselves a tax payer here so you know they’re calling it how they see it! And they’re getting political with it in the comment section of a local art e-zine. I’m too stupid to realize whether this is biting commentary or brilliant satire, but whatever it is, it’s good!

  38. Interfectorem Mendacium

    Great. Artists crapping on other artists for what they do. Whatever happened to if you don’t like something don’t say anything? Drive by the electrical boxes and have a better day.

  39. In Berlin you use them as places to stick your poster for your show – or to promote other cultural things. In Antwerp the city itself creates colour photo-copies of pigeons that wrap themselves around the boxes. In our troubled times, they can be used as a kind of ‘notice-board’ for collective information – and so are covered or painted so that it cannot be used as such.

  40. Kathleen Smalley

    I’ll admit that I have not read all of the other comments; but, I will say that I am so privileged to have an awesome window above my sink and overtime I look out straight across the street is two very ugly grey, very large boxes. While I sometimes get to see instead an AT&T truck parked in front of them for a change of scenery, (and if AT&T is here to get the neighborhood cable working again that’s really good!), most of the time it’s just the big gray boxes. If it were my yard I’d plant around it, but it’s not mine. I would totally love to have something beautiful painted on them and have often thought about it. However, living in a neighborhood with an HOA Board that “protects” us from unsightly homeowner decisions, I highly doubt it would ever get approved. As long as the images are in “good taste” I say paint em all – please.

  41. We would like to take this opportunity to respond to the article by Glasstire’s Rainey Knudson that prompted a great and meaningful discussion about Mini Murals this past week. UP Art Studio’s mission is “Civic Pride through Civic Art”. Our goal is to educate, move and engage communities through public art at every turn. In her article Ms. Kundson made the following statement: “If public art is going to dominate the visual landscape, it’s got to be so great that most people enjoy the experience of it.” Her statement is a bold one that we acknowledge has a place in our community. Hence we would like to invite Ms. Kundson to join us a guest curator for one of our Mini Murals projects. As mentioned above one of our goals is to “engage” our community and this invitation is meant to do exactly that. It is our hope that Ms. Kundson will join us in reaching out to broaden our efforts to continue to make Houston a dynamic and visually attractive home to its citizens.

    1. Sandra Ortega

      The one on the side of Allen and Waugh is an example of why you are getting criticism. Was it an elementary school class collaboration? I mean this inquiry honestly because if it was that is not really where commissioned public works should be going. If kids art should be getting public art commissions, then kids flute or piano students should be getting some play time at the Houston Symphony.

      If UP is going to act as HAA or Fresh Arts, they should start taking 15-17% instead of the bulk of the commission. I love the old saying, “but you are getting great exposure”. My favorite response to those statements, “people die from exposure”, ML.

      Let’s step it up, maybe your invite to “Ms. Knudson” will up the bar.

      1. quality control?

        One of my favorite comments/responses on this matter!

        If the city is granting $2k per box, with the artist getting $1k- that leaves $1k for the person behind the desk.(there are a lot of these boxes, so I can’t even imagine how much of a pay day that has amounted to) Having said that- if the person(s) painting the box has to jump through hoops, have their design altered, etc. and THEN brave the Houston heat in order to actually apply their design to the box- should those in charge not also put forth the effort of at least keeping the quality to a certain minimum? -I get that quality/standards can be a matter of opinion, but it seems like somebody is asleep at the wheel or on extended vacation in that department.

  42. Jason

    I agree with Rainey. Thank you, Rainey!

    In Ann Arbor, in Michigan, it started with the fire hydrants. Somebody actually painted a fire hydrant “in the style of Jackson Pollock.” Seriously? Yes, seriously.
    After turning every fire hydrant into a gaudy little tchotchke, the City moved on to the utility boxes. Next, the water towers. None of this has made Ann Arbor unique, neither has it made the city a mecca for art tourism. The city isn’t more fun or more inspiring or more creative. It hasn’t made Ann Arbor a nice place to live as an artist. In fact, no surprise, artist life in the city has never recovered since the last affordable artist studio building was redeveloped into a YMCA.

    Please Stop Painting The Electrical Boxes, because:
    1. It’s demeaning, to art and artists. If municipalities want to invest in artists, think about subsidizing more studio space, or investing more in your local arts institutions.
    2. Fire hydrants and utility boxes were designed, already. Fire hydrants are red for a reason, and utility boxes are grey and green for a reason. It’s a lack of respect towards those designs and the designers who designed them.
    3. A city that needs to paint its utility boxes in an effort to be “vibrant and dynamic” has much bigger problems that painting utility boxes is going to fix.
    4. If you think plain utility boxes are ugly, you haven’t been paying attention to the last 100 years of art. Consider them “found objects,” and discover their inner beauty.

    I’d like to think Jackson Pollock would have had enough sense to paint a fire hydrant red.

    1. Jason

      Ann Arbor recently sent out a call for artists with proposals for painting man hole covers. Good news: we’ve almost run out of things to paint.

  43. Ariana

    I started the Streets Alive project in the Bay Area (California).

    We wrap utility boxes with a vinyl wrap after digitally remndering art. This allows us to work with artists who do work in their studios, then we can scan or photograph the art and print/install.

    THe person that wrote this article would rather go to museums and galleries. I approach my work as the most public of art galleries. A gallery without walls. Accessible to all. I have produced over 100 installations, all unique. all by talented artists. Some are photographs, some digital, some block print, some collage, some done by homeless teens, some by entire classes at a junior high, some by professional artists of fame….they reflect the community and the culture of place.

    So…I couldn’t disagree more. If he art in Houston is sub par, look at the process. Try wrap over direct paint. Analyze the approval process. Don’t think artists don’t want a chance to get their work on the street because that’s the most false conclusion this author of this article poses. I have worked with artists who make $10,000 on a painting jump at the chance to have a digital rendering of their work appear on a box in their community.

    I have had “struggling” artists thrilled to have their work on the box and get paid to do it (we pay $750 per box as well). Clearly this author hasn’t been on the ground working with artists.

    I say paint/wrap every box in sight. Just have a theme, have planning, have harmony, have design review, have quality control, have input from artists, have input from businesses…build an art campaign with a strong foundation and everyone truly wins.

    1. When I first heard about this project, I thought that the city surely must be using vinyl wrap. But, as I saw these around town, I realized they were hand-painted, and was a bit surprised and disappointed. I imagined the artist dripping wet from our Houston heat, swatting off mosquitoes, breathing in toxic fumes, and hoping most people who happen along are friendly and non-confrontational. Although the chosen time period in the fall is considered to be cooler, and it could be, we still have some crazy, often hot weather here. Honestly, love the idea of opening the possibility for all artists by using the vinyl wrap… so much easier, and I think, much more professional! And so love that story about artists who make $10,000 on one piece being excited to have the chance to display their work on an electric box for a payment of $750! This says it all, and just got an email from Up Art Studio saying that well over 400 applications came in!

  44. Sorry for a double post, I wrote this for the podcast, but that comment box wants to limit by exuberance with 1,000 characters. Ha! Here’s what I wanted to say after listening to Ms. Rees and Ms. Knudson’s discussion around this article:

    Nice job Glasstire. This is an interesting and insightful and incite-ful discussion. I am truly enjoying the intelligent perspective you’re bringing us around this subject. Thank you. I wish I could sit down with Rainey for a discussion around her premises: Mediocre artists placing art in public, why should the public be forced to look at this art, and what is an artist. If I had this opportunity, I would focus on these three areas: 1. Our difference in defining who or what is an artist. 2. I have a simple, yet very different definition of what is art. And thirdly, what is the purpose of art. Finding a common definition would end this discussion today. I have a different position than Ms. Knudson. If she is attempting to be sensational and arouse passion in the reader, I see it and there’s great value in that objective. Similar to art, the dialog can be the primary objective in many instances despite the work. See DaDa or Pop Art for examples. I witnessed this same reaction when Lucia Simek wrote an article about “mediocre” public art in the May 27,2010 edition of D Magazine. It interesting to note that Ms. Simek’s article had the same tone and message which generated the same responses. It makes me think the underlying debate is the three points listed above which poke at least three huge factions: municipalities, media and the art community. These stakeholders have an invested interested in defining art and the artists and a strong opinion where resources should be placed. If the author is attempting to “stir the pot,” or increase readership, or make a legitimate argument for the position offered, all commendable. But, similar to defining the type of art we’re discussing, there is value in labeling the type of media we’re reading and make sure comments are read in the proper tone. This is why I’m proposing a respectful discussion where the intention is to fully explore this subject and not just explain the message. Thank you for the continued coverage and support of the arts!

  45. Dave

    I listened to the podcast where you discuss this further and you laugh at the notion that removing public art you don’t like is fascistic…BUT IT IS FASCISTIC! Critique the art, fine. But doing away with the program because you don’t like the artwork is absolutely tyrannical, snobbish, and counterproductive. And your defense is essentially that artists and critics who actually know something are all on the same page with you, but the general public isn’t. But this is a public art program which generates public art for the public to consume! The argument that the only voices which matter are the ones with an art history background is silly. That said, would you fawn over a Katharine Bernhardt electrical box? Her work is interesting BECAUSE it looks naive! How about Henry Darger? You’re doing mental gymnastics to convince yourself that you’re right when you could simply revise your thesis to something like, “I think the artwork on the boxes should be done by artists I like better. Can I be on a panel?”

    1. Rainey Knudson

      Well, it appears we are at an impasse. I think cities could do so much better — could place far superior art in the public realm — by calling upon artists for their ideas, rather than forcing them to decorate doo-dads in the urban landscape in order to scrape by. You do not agree.

      As for Bernhardt or Darger, I’m not sure why you bring them up, but again: as I said already, of *course* talented artists could do (and have done, in Houston and elsewhere) something worth looking at with this brief. My argument is that they shouldn’t be asked to in the first place.

      Lastly: to value artists’ ideas about art over the ideas of bureaucrats or the general public is not fascism. It is showing artists the respect that is their due.

      1. Dave

        But the premise of your piece is that the boxes should not be painted. That’s not supporting artists and it’s not somehow defeating stuffy bureaucrats. It is suppressing artwork–albeit mediocre artwork. I feel like you’re being intellectually dishonest here and I think that’s why I and maybe others feel passionate about this article. I believe in your job to critique the strength of the artwork but I find the call to remove art and opportunities for artists, particularly ones who may still be discovering their voice, disturbing. And I bring up Darger because “outsider art” has intrigue, which could be found here, and Bernhardt because her naive approach is completely in vogue and not THAT distant from some of this kind of mediocre work. What’s more, the argument that art should be accomplished by only seasoned professionals in the same way that medicine or law is practiced is the type of thing I’d expect to hear from someone ignorant of art history. I mean, you’ve heard of Marcel Duchamp. Are you for a set of HIPAA style art ethics or perhaps an arts version of a bar association? Bureaucracies, arts organizations, wealthy patrons etc. often decide what is deemed valuable, its not the quality of the work, and certainly not artists themselves. As I’ve said before, calling for better artwork is completely admirable. Doing a thorough investigation of the process involved in these public works would be even more interesting. But making flippant calls for the removal of any art feels arbitrary and oppressive

        1. Rainey Knudson

          Where have I called for the removal of opportunities for artists? Where have I called for art to be removed?

          My argument is for supporting artists by giving them the freedom to realize their own ideas, rather than having to produce someone else’s preconceived idea of an art project, particularly one as lame as this.

          I think the reason this article has inspired so much passion (as you put it) is not because of “intellectual dishonesty” but simply because I said that most of these boxes are badly painted. They are. Clearly, some people don’t see that, and find the public expression of such an idea outrageous. Clearly some do see it, but feel there are other benefits that override the “quality” issue. But I believe that the same goals of visual pleasure, urban beautification and pride of community — all excellent goals for public art — could be far more effectively achieved with better ideas coming directly from the artists themselves.

          You bring up Duchamp. I would gently suggest that the people who excluded him from the Independent Exhibition did so because his work did not fit into their preconceived idea of how everybody should be making art. My argument is for letting the artists come up with their own ideas.

          1. Dave

            Back up a second. What’s the title of your piece again?

            I agree that the work is mediocre. But the crux of your argument is that the boxes should go unpainted because you disapprove of the art–in other words, you, an art lover, are arguing here for the creation of less art. But you could be advocating simply for better artwork, not ending existing programs. The open ended proposal is cute but also a complete fantasy. I believe you said on the podcast that you wanted to hear solutions rather than just outrage. Glasstire should jury a painted box competition of your own. Think you could find better artists? Where would you place the work?

          2. Rainey Knudson

            I’m not arguing for the creation of less art. I’m arguing for a better municipal public art.

  46. Larry Dudenski

    In my little ‘city’ of Halifax, Nova Scotia I’ve been fortunate enough to make a few bucks by painting these boxes. City officials claim that by having artists putting their touch on these devices, the punks that go around tagging everything they can see would leave them alone. And they were right. Before this project, nearly every box was tagged by numerous individuals. But those guys mostly consider themselves street artists and won’t mess with other artists work. So if you prefer a picture of a sailboat, spaceship or just a Bob Ross-esque scene over a few scribblings, then it’s an improvement. Otherwise I guess you’re right.

  47. gabi

    I’m going to paint on some boxes where i live. (not in the U.S.) After doing research to find out why most of the painted boxes I’ve seen weren’t beautiful, I’m hoping to use what I’ve learned in order to create something different. It’s more about HOW to do it, than it is about IF to do it….!

  48. The more that cities integrate practicing, professional artists from a wide demographic, the more substantive and exciting public art opportunities will be. These are great civil projects, but there are bigger problems that art can solve. It’s wonderful that these opportunities exist and are growing!

  49. David

    Very heated. I disagree with you. I like the painted boxes.

    Would you rather have:

    A.) Painted boxes.
    B.) Non-painted boxes.
    C.) An advertisement instead of painted boxes.

    I hope C is never an option.

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