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Progress! And The Importance of the Prototype

As of late January there has been incredible progress made on the construction of Swarm Street. Its integration into the Indianapolis Cultural Trail experience, linking urban neighborhoods and cultural hubs, is almost complete. The most exciting thing to see is the completion of the overhead armature — the mechanism for delivering the overhead white LED “swarm” lights. After producing public art for almost a decade, I can tell you that it is an amazing moment when I walk onto a job site and realize that the project is starting to look like the rendering. This can also be a moment that doesn’t always occur. It is one thing to go back and forth with creative professionals who are drawing up their vision on a computer, but it is another thing to actually work with them to realize that vision in the real world. As I am writing, I can say that the Acconci project is beginning to look like the renderings that I’ve been looking at for several years now. This week, I had a moment.

To help others achieve “the rendering” and “the moment,” I want to share a significant lesson learned on this project thus far, and that is the importance of creating prototypes. Yes, that is PROTOTYPES–plural. This may not seem like such an epiphany but I think for other project managers like myself who work on behalf of non-arts related owners (municipalities, foundations, etc.), it is important to share and reinforce the importance of including time and money in a project’s schedule and budget for prototypes or models, especially if the project involves any technology or a significant lighting component. In my experience, many agencies consider the prototype/model line item and the contingency line item as areas that are “slush” in a budget. Therefore they often get “value engineered” out of a project. This is a mistake, in my opinion. As we get close to the finish line on Swarm Street, I reflect on our path and actually wish that we had dedicated more time and resources to prototyping.

We did allow for two prototypes, one built by Acconci Studio and their subs and another built by our local contractors prior to beginning construction of the actual project. Both prototypes mainly illuminated design challenges that still needed to be worked out. This is exactly what a prototype should do, show you what works and what doesn’t. However, we should have allowed all the subcontractors the time and the resources to re-do both prototypes to get them as close to 100% as possible. We didn’t do this, and so while the project is beginning to look like the rendering, in the field we are working to solve challenges with some of the red and blue lights that are not mixing properly to read purple. We also encountered some issues with the overhead armature that resulted in pieces having to be re-worked or re-fabricated. I am convinced that if we had allowed more time and resources on the prototype, we would have seen these issues then and we would have corrected them. Luckily, we do have funders like ArtPlace and a commissioning agency like the Central Indiana Community Foundation who supported the prototypes and the contingency budget so we’ve been able to work through these issues in the field and in construction without much pain.

So my recommendation is to spend a little more time and money up front to identify and solve problems on a smaller scale. You’ll save time and money in the end by not having to fix problems in the field.

We’ll be firing up the “swarm” lights soon. It is an exciting time. Stay tuned!

-Mindy Taylor Ross
Public Art Coordinator, Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene & Marilyn Glick

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