Keys to the City

Before construction began in May 2008 on Columbia’s new city hall, the Standing Committee on Public Art — part of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs Commission — voted unanimously in favor of nationally renowned public artist Howard Meehan’s Keys to the City concept for the main artwork in front of the new building. The 19-foot steel-framed keyhole/portal sculpture will stand in the middle of the pedestrian plaza at the corner of Eighth Street and Broadway and will feature a wide range of truly Columbian elements, including old maps and photos, embedded in laminated glass panels and lighted from the interior. It’s all meant to reflect the history of the community.

The city’s Percent for Art program funded Meehan’s commission for the project, and the artist spent time researching and getting input from local historians, city leaders and community members to best capture an iconic concept that could truly become a city landmark. Completion of the sculpture is slated for late March, strategically timed to coincide with completion of the main construction on the building. The unveiling of the artwork is an event that both the community and the artist are eagerly anticipating.

Communicating The Character

Meehan’s career as a public artist grew out of his work as an industrial and corporate designer. Originally from New York, he attended Hofstra University. After a stint in the military, he received his degree with honors in industrial design from the Arts Center College of Design in California, and from there, Meehan traveled the country and around the globe working for three Fortune 500 companies as a designer. Two decades ago, he switched to public art design. His industrial design background has resulted in design work in the Smithsonian National Design Museum’s permanent collection, as well as seven design and engineering patents. He has completed more than 25 mixed-media public art works nationally.

“At one point I became interested in creating art from recyclable materials,” says Meehan from his home in Cochiti Lake, N.M., a small Keresan Pueblo reservation that is home to his Firefly Studio. “I realized that artwork has a longer ‘shelf life’ than the consumer and industrial work I’ve done in the past. Working in public art gives me a sense of doing something more meaningful and giving something back to the world.”

Meehan started small by sandblasting images into the glass of used cathode ray tubes and he began selling them in art galleries. As the demand for his artwork grew, he began further study of glass artwork, including study at the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle, Wash. Soon, he was sandblasting images into larger glass panels, and then expanded his range of materials and began submitting his work for public art commissions. He currently creates two to three public art works per year around the country.

“I like to incorporate the feel of a specific place into the work that I currently create,” Meehan says. “Public art can be competitive, and it really takes not only talent but also perseverance and patience; it teaches you to have a thick skin.”

Meehan was one of 139 original applicants for the Columbia city hall’s main art feature; that number was culled to three before he was finally selected after interviewing with the committee. The Keys to the City concept is the second proposal Meehan created for the project.

“It’s been a long but enjoyable process, and I’m excited to see the final product completed,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed becoming acquainted with the city and its history, and discovering what the community is really about. I feel that my sculpture will really be pronounced and able to capture the essence of Columbia and give its citizens a sense of ownership. I want the public to feel ownership, and that this place belongs to them.”

Columbia’s Percent for Art

Established in 1997, the Percent for Art program allots about 1 percent of the cost of certain city construction and renovation projects for public art. To be considered, the project must cost more than $1 million and must be an above-ground, capital improvement for the city. The Columbia City Council has the final vote on whether or not a construction project will have a percentage set aside for artwork. Past Percent for Art projects include the Eighth and Cherry Parking Garage, the Oakland Family Aquatic Center and Fire Station No. 8.

According to Marie Nau Hunter, manager of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Percent for Art is more than just an art program. It is also about the public good, public pride and the quality of life in Columbia, as well as its economic development.

“Once an artist is under contract, the design and approval process begins,” Hunter says. “We seek as much public input as we can find.”

Hunter describes Meehan as established, experienced and very personable, willing to work with the committee to fine-tune the sculpture’s final design.

“Howard really knows and understands the field of public art, and that it should be tied to the specific improvement project, but more importantly, to the community, and that it should become part of it,” she says. “Public domain art is different than artwork for the private domain or even for an exhibit; not any artist can create for the public.”

Hunter says the culmination of Meehan’s work for Columbia is highly anticipated. “I feel Howard will really appreciate knowing that his work will become a long-lasting part of our community.”

Visit Howard Meehan’s Firefly Studio online and view more of his art at