[Update: 6:20p.m. James Gaetano reached out to offer additional info about the piano and the public process, and his comments are added below.]
New Albany is getting a street piano, but the Southern Indiana city had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting the public art project. Street pianos are, quite simply, pianos in the street open for anyone to play. The concept began, according to Wikipedia, in England when someone left a piano outside after not being able to carry it up to his apartment. They added a sign inviting the public to play the piano for free, and a movement was born.
Street Pianos were popularized under artist Luke Jerram’s Play Me, I’m Yours project which brought dozens of creatively painted pianos to cities around the globe including New York, Denver, and Cincinnati. The project is a protest of sorts against the regulation of outdoor music, but it’s also a lot of fun.
But you’d never have guessed that in New Albany, which finally approved its first street piano after four months of feet dragging and deliberations. High school teacher and one-time New Albany City Council candidate Hannegan Roseberry proposed the piano this past Spring, but only this week emerged from the city’s review process.
In what’s been dubbed the “Street Piano Debacle of 2015,” the New Albany Board of Public Works & Safety first tabled the request, next sending it to the Historical Preservation Commission to weigh in, and then again to Develop New Albany for another opinion, before delaying the proposal citing issues of safety and liability.
“Since first approached by Hannegan Roseberry with a request to place an artistically adorned street piano under the awning at Jimmy’s Music Center on the corner of Pearl and Market,” NA Confidential’s Roger Baylor wrote, “the board has gone out of its way to be unresponsive.” Baylor, also a candidate for New Albany mayor, countered public safety concerns on his blog with a photo series documenting public realm obstacles that constitute greater public-safety risk than a street piano.
“How on earth could a little piano cause such an utter fiasco?” asked Roseberry in a letter to the News & Tribune before this week’s meeting. “This proposal has been going on since April 2015, and we appear to be nowhere closer to a resolution of any sort, regardless of the fact that I have written the equivalent of a dissertation in terms of proposals, research, and submissions for their blessing.”
On Tuesday of this week, the project returned to the Board of Public Works & Safety.
Before the meeting began, artist Michael Wimmer held a protest outside the venue, setting up a life-size faux-piano made of scrap materials and painted with slogans like “Free the Street Piano” and “It’s Just a Piano…Not a Two-Way Street,” according to NA Confidential. A Facebook page also called Free the New Albany Street Piano attracted several hundred followers within a day of launching. (It will soon be rebranded as Celebrate the New Albany Street Piano now that the project is moving ahead.)
That protest was itself thwarted by the city, according to NA Confidential:
Moments later, out came the building authority’s head supervisor, who informed Michael that if he wanted the piano to remain on the public plaza, as opposed to the public sidewalk ten feet away, he’d have to obtain—wait for it—the Board of Public Works and Safety’s approval.
The protest piano was subsequently rolled to the sidewalk. He’s been wheeling it around the city since the meeting, gathering signatures and comments from locals.
This week, the board met a third time to consider the street piano, and the project was approved unanimously. Still, the board president, Warren Nash, held tight to his concerns over public safety, according to the News & Tribune‘s Daniel Suddeath. “He said the city had concerns about liability, and whether Jimmy’s Music Center would be OK with allowing the piano to be placed in front of the business.” The business owner, James Gaetano, said at the meeting he supported the piano in front of his store and offered to put the piano under his business’ liability insurance.
Gaetano reached out to Broken Sidewalk to explain the process from his perspective. “It’s been blown out of proportion,” he said, adding that the city and the mayor had been in favor of the piano from the start. “All I want to say is that the city is 1,000 percent for art and music,” he said. “They were asking for certain things and [Roseberry] didn’t provide them.” He said he attended the second and third meetings of the Board of Public Works & Safety where the piano was discussed, noting that the city primarily did not want anyone to get hurt. After talking with the mayor and checking with his insurance company, he said he was able to put the piano under his own liability insurance, which ultimately helped get the project approved.
Beginning on Labor Day, the piano will be installed for six weeks in front of Jimmy’s Music Center on the corner of Market and Pearl streets in downtown New Albany. And you are invited to stop by and play a tune.
In another letter to the N&T back in June, Roseberry expressed her personal bewilderment at the process. “New Albany must make government more accessible,” she wrote. “It is absolutely inexcusable that a citizen with an idea and a passion for her community could be so absolutely and completely led in circles, shut out and shut down.”
New Albany’s off-tune reception of Roseberry’s street piano highlights a critical part of urban life today—that we must embrace experimentation in our public realm. As cities and urban areas continue to draw more residents and visitors, the community is eager to explore new ways of interacting with the city—and with each other. Whether it’s through tactical urbanism, public art, or simply just hanging out on the sidewalk, cities like New Albany would do well to encourage such citizen-led initiatives and reap the benefits of a revitalized urban society.