Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Digital Billboard Art Pops Up In Milwaukee

Digital billboards seem to occupy more and more of our environment. A local public art advocate saw “opportunity” and pounced.

Over the next 10 days, as 18 billboards rotate from image to image, ONE will feature a local visual artist.

I met project visionary – Pegi Christiansen - at the busy corner of 25th and St. Paul when her scheme was still evolving.

Credit IN:SITE
Map of Digital Billboard Art

“As I look east there are two digital billboards, there’s also a vinyl billboard, there is huge signage; south there are two billboards and as I look west there are two billboards. So we are in an area with 10 billboards in my 360 degree field of vision..”

That conversation happened April of LAST year and Christiansen was already deeply immersed in strategizing. She had just sent a letter to major billboard companies - Lamar and Clear Channel – hoping that one would bite.

“What I am suggesting is that ONE DAY A YEAR the two key companies with digital billboards in the City of Milwaukee would donate a billboard dedicated to art images with NO ad content.”

Are you scratching your head – wondering why an environmental reporter is telling you this story? Digital billboards are not free of controversy. Debate ranges from concern that rapidly changing ads will distract drivers and cause injury, to e-waste created at a billboard’s end of life.

At the time, Christiansen said a federal highway traffic study on some of these issues was expected “any minute.” But months have passed without any sign of federal study results. Christiansen - who is first and foremost a temporary public art advocate - wasn’t about to put the brakes on her vision.

“Nationally art on billboards on both vinyl and digital is growing. Richmond has sponsored art on digital billboards since 2010 and the project has spread across the country – including Chicago and Detroit.”

Since her idea first sprouted, the project’s scope has evolved. After both major billboard companies jumped aboard, eighteen organizations submitted a total of 67 images to be considered for “8 seconds in the sun.”

I meet Christiansen along with Graeme Reid at an eastside gallery. Reid – Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Wisconsin Art - curated the selection process. He says it’s not your average judging criteria.

“It’s large scale, seen from a distance – most often than not they’ll be moving quite fast. So obviously there has to be something very immediate, very visual about it where people could look, see, comprehend really in a matter of seconds.”

His choices ranged from painting to sculpture and photography – drawn from 18 different local arts organization.

“The Coalition of Photographic Arts, MIAD, Alverno, the Haggerty, but then we’ve got a couple others that people may not be as familiar with – we’ve got Very Special Arts Wisconsin which specifically deals with people with disabilities – their art work – and then the Grand Avenue Club that has a specific focus on people with mental illness.”

Reid says themes range too – from thought provoking to whimsical. One photographer drew from his past working at a shipyard on Jones Island.

“What you’ve got is a black and white image of a massive ship and just in the foreground is a worker making a snowball and in the background his colleague is doing a handstand.”

Billboard art visionary Pegi Christiansen with Graeme Reid who judged the show.

Pegi Christiansen guides us to around the corner to Oakland and North Avenue – it’s one of 18 billboard locations showcasing art. She’s still dizzy with the project’s evolution.

“Over a million people will see at least one of these images during these 10 days is well beyond what I ever envisioned.”

Before our conversation ends, Christiansen quickly adds......

“I think it’s just going to create a real interest in what we see in our environment to get that environment in there.”

Pegi Christiansen is the founder of IN:SITE – an arts organization that has cultivated temporary public art installations in unexpected places since 2006.

Digital Billboard Art Month runs through October 10.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.