Before the winter chill sets in, there will be a new sculpture in front of the Baldwin Public Library in downtown Birmingham. James Miller-Melburg’s “Michigan Spring,” which was exhibited at Grand Rapid’s Art Prize in 2014, was donated to the city of Birmingham by his family after his death last year. Barbara Heller, the chair of the Birmingham Public Arts Board, couldn’t be more excited about this newest addition to the city’s art collection.
By day, Heller serves as the Director and Conservator-Special Projects at the Detroit Institute of Arts, her employer for more than 40 years. Working as both the painting conservator and chief conservator, she has worked on large-scale projects like the 1988 cleaning and restoration of Diego Rivera’s famous “Detroit Industry” frescoes.
For the past decade, however, her work has focused on the bigger picture of museum preservation – where will the museum store the 90 percent of its artwork that is not on view, and what kind of lighting and wall paint is environmentally safe to be around centuries of historical artifacts.
“Anything and everything we do in a museum can affect the collection,” she notes, citing big events like Fash Bash and the annual gala as times when the artwork can be most vulnerable.
This commitment to the arts is palpable in Heller’s extracurricular involvements as well, having volunteered as a juror for arts competitions at The Community House, the Michigan Great Artist Competition, the Strand Theater, and the Concours d’Elegance among others. She has also served on the boards of the Michigan Legacy Art Park and the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum. In October, she was honored as a recipient of the Birmingham Bloomfield Cultural Arts Award.
She has been a part of the Birmingham Public Arts Board since its inception. “I love to volunteer and give back to the community. … I know a lot about sculpture – I have the technical side, I know about the long-term preservation and what kind of mounts and pads the sculptures need. And I also have the aesthetic side.”
Heller has made an inventory of all of the art that belongs to Birmingham, including many inside buildings and the library that she says “people don’t realize belong to the citizens of the city.”
Then there are projects they’ve started, like the biannual “In Stitches” event, where community members “yarn bomb” trees, parking meters, bicycle racks and benches with handmade knit and crocheted objects. “Art takes many different forms,” says Heller. “It engages people. To watch children stop in Shain Park and laugh and engage, I think that’s a really beautiful thing.”
The project that has most excited Heller this year was when they turned the electrical box outside of the Birmingham Theater into a giant popcorn box. There are plans to decorate at least two other boxes as well, adding a creative and visual element to the cityscape.
“It makes art accessible, it makes it fun, and it gives people a placemaker.”
When it comes to public art, Heller says location is a primary consideration. “Does it look proper? Does it fit the ambiance? You have to have the right piece in the right place.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent