“’The Play Me, I’m Yours’ Street Piano Project is an international, interactive public art project that is meant to empower and inspire members of the community through the arts,” explained Susan Thomas, Executive Director for Omaha Creative Institute.
The project started in the United Kingdom in 2008. Artist Luke Jerram was the first person to do it. Since its inception, Thomas said the public art project has been done in 37 cities, including Barcelona, Munich, New York City and Austin.
Last year, Thomas said it was done in Salt Lake City. In fact, she said the new head of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Adam Price, did it with his old organization.
According to Thomas, there’s a version of the project that just opened in Cleveland as well as one in New York City right now that features 88 pianos.
So how did Omaha get involved?
“The idea was brought to us by a man named Jim Boston of the Great Plains Ragtime Society. He’s an avid piano player who gets together with a group of people to play ragtime piano,” said Thomas.
She said he had been trying to get this organized for a few years but wasn’t able to get any traction.
Thomas said it took a bit of searching, but ultimately, Omaha Creative Institute found Luke Jerram’s “Play Me, I’m Yours” project. She said they really helped with a lot of the logistics. After writing several grant proposals, Thomas said the first funding came in last summer and by this January, they had received all the money they needed to move forward.
According to Thomas, some of the key funders included Carol Gendler, the Robert Daugherty Charitable Foundation, the Iowa West Foundation, the Tom and Mary Jetton Foundation, the Nebraska Arts Council, Annette and Paul Smith and the Alfred G. Thompson Company Foundation.
Once the funding was in place, Thomas said they started thinking about how to make the project work so it would include the whole community. About that time, OCI hit on the idea of going to a group of arts-related non-profits and asking each of them to identify an artist they would like to have decorate or design a piano.
Said Thomas, “We tried to cross genres, though many of the organizations focused on the visual arts. But we also had, for example, the Nebraska Writer’s Collective and they chose Bill Hoover because he’s not only a painter but he’s also a songwriter and a poet, so he is doing that one.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha, Creighton University, Bellevue University and Metropolitan Community College are all designing a piano. Each art department chose their individual artist. Two of them selected professors of art to decorate their pianos while art students designed the other two.
Joslyn Art Museum had their Alternative Art for Teens Camp do one together. That piano will be located at the Lewis and Clark Landing, at the base of the pedestrian bridge.
“The one that’s being done at Hot Shops features artist Paula Wallace. She’s the main artist, but then she collected a group of other artists from Hot Shops to do parts of it, so that’s a three-dimensional one,” explained Thomas.
The partnering organization for the Hot Shops piano is Opera Omaha and so that particular piano is designed to reflect Cinderella, which is one of the opera’s productions this coming season. A glassblower has created a pumpkin to sit on top of the piano and a metalworker made a mouth that runs across the piano.
The Cinderella piano will be available to play at Rockbrook Village.
ConAgra’s piano will reflect people doing yoga and different yoga poses. Bob Bosco, with Creighton University Art Department, designed that piano.
Lori Elliott-Bartle’s is going to be in Memorial Park at the south stairs in front of the memorial.
There are a total of 10 pianos that are part of the “Play Me, I’m Yours” project. The majority of the pianos were acquired from Craigslist. But, Thomas said before Omaha Creative Institute accepted a piano, they made sure it was tunable. A tuner was sent to check each piano before it was purchased. Once they were tuned, the pianos were delivered to various locations around the city last month.
The remaining pianos are located at Aksarben Village, the Tree of Life Sculpture, Florence Park Gazebo, Village Pointe Center Court, Fontenelle Forest and Bayliss Park in Council Bluffs.
“From those locations, we are having them placed near where they are being painted because it will be a big day getting them installed. We have to put a bike lock on them. Each piano will say ‘Play Me I’m Yours’ in big letters,” said Thomas.
The final piece of the project is the informal programming that will surround the pianos. For example, Bob Bosco will hold yoga classes near his piano, at ConAgra Plaza at 10th and Farnam Streets. And Elliott-Bartle will have storytelling events with piano music at Memorial Park.
A lot of the time, the pianos will be open for anyone to play, but on September 5th, Joslyn Art Museum will have a sing along at their piano. That event takes place at 7:00 p.m.
In order to keep the pianos in as good of shape as possible, Omaha Creative Institute has enlisted the assistance of what they are calling “piano buddies.” These volunteers will cover the pianos with plastic at night. They are also on call in the case of inclement weather.
Additionally, a tuner will go out two to three times while the pianos are sitting out to tune them.
“This project is so cool because it involves so many people. There are the communities where these will reside and be played. It also involves a wide variety of artists from emerging artists to successful and well-regarded artists. And there’s also the different non-profits that are involved in and promoters of the arts, making the arts accessible to a broad range of people,” said Thomas.
People light up when Thomas mentions the “Play Me, I’m Yours” Street Piano Project. She has had several community members tell her how excited they are to play the pianos. And that’s been a goal of Omaha Creative Institute’s from the beginning, to build audiences for the arts, because they know how much joy and pleasure it can bring to people.
Thomas said all skill levels are welcome, “Whether you can play “Chopsticks” or Rachmaninoff, you can go and play outside and get a flash mob kind of following or just enjoy simply playing in the outdoors.”
The “Play Me, I’m Yours” Street Piano Project runs August 24th through September 8th and is open to everyone. OCI still needs piano buddies. If you’re interested, email Natalie@omahacreativeinstitute.org. Piano locations and artist information is online at streetpianos.com/omaha2013.