There’s a large oil painting hanging in the maximum security unit at the New Hampshire State Prison.
It’s a picture of the old prison, depicting interactions between guards and inmates as the sun shines through the windows at just the right angle, illuminating the dark and dreary block of cells.
To see the piece of art, a visitor has to undergo a background check, walk through a metal detector and enter three locked gates – all while accompanied by an armed guard.
And for those who aren’t reporters or state officials, the chances of catching a glimpse of the painting are very slim.
The work is owned by the state – one of more than 300 pieces commissioned by the New Hampshire Percent for Art Program. The goal of the program is to “make art accessible to everyone,” said Ginnie Lupi, director of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.
But sometimes, pieces can’t necessarily be accessed by a stranger off the street.
At the Department of Revenue Administration, for example, art seekers can walk in and see the painted mural covering the walls in the lobby.
But if they want to see the other 14 pieces scattered throughout the building – like the oil painting of peonies in the taxpayer assistance room, or the textured ceramic tile piece in the fourth floor conference room – they’d be required show a valid form of ID and, quite possibly, sign a confidentiality agreement not to discuss any work going on in the building.
Similarly, if one drove up to the gate at the National Guard Reserve asking to see the art in Building F, they’d be turned away.
They’d have to wait a day for a representative to call and set up an appointment to enter the barbed wire fence and see the bronze-colored plaster relief of soldiers from different time periods.
Anyone can go to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.
But they’ll have to pay an admission fee if they want to see all of the Percent for Art pieces, like the comic book-style acrylic panels in the hallway that show Christa McAuliffe and Alan Shepard as space explorers.
The Department of Health and Human Services is housed in a secure building. And so is its art.
So if visitors want to see the New Hampshire landscape ribbon paintings wrapping around the walls, they’d probably have to call ahead.
“I’m sorry,” the receptionist at the front desk says. “That’s just the way things work.”
The Percent for Art Program was enacted by the state Legislature in 1979. The law mandates that for each building the state constructs or renovates, 0.5 percent of allocated funds must be set aside for art.
Pieces are placed in “the most public spaces” a state-funded building has to offer, said Carey Johnson, curatorial specialist for the Arts Council.
“It’s not going to be in Joe Schmoe’s office,” said Carey Johnson, curatorial specialist for the Arts Council. “The art has to be in rooms that the public goes into.”
This could still mean asking for permission to see the pieces placed in deeper parts of the building.
But that’s okay, Lupi said. All this art has a purpose
“By including artwork in public spaces, public buildings, we really break down barriers to access,” she said.
Take the prison, for example.
“These are public buildings, so the public is in and out of them all the time,” Lupi said. “Very often, this is a population that even before their incarceration may not have had regular access to visual art.”
Most of the general public will certainly never get to see the Percent for Art pieces in the prison, said Jeff Lyons, public information officer for the Department of Corrections.
But a lot of the works are placed in high-traffic areas for inmates and staff. And Lyons said he thinks art can certainly have a positive influence on this population.
“If you feel good about your environment and living conditions, maybe you’ll feel better about your life,” Lyons said.
The prison has art in a lot of places – the visitor’s room, the cafeteria, the lobby and out in the yard. Only 13 of the pieces are part of the Percent for Art Program; most of the others were created and donated by inmates.
Six of the Percent for Art pieces – commissioned back in the ’80s – were painted by former inmate Dennis Morton and depict scenes from the state prison before it was renovated.
“There’s some inmates and staff that could tell you the names of everyone in that painting,” said Sgt. David Cormier, pointing to the piece in the maximum security unit.
Indirectly, the art is helping to work toward the greater mission of the prison, Lyons added.
“Maybe it will change their way of thinking, so they know there’s beauty out there, beyond the choices that brought them in,” he said. “Hopefully, they will return to society with the tools in place to be a contributing member.”
When she considered it, Carollynn Ward, a tax policy analyst and public information officer for the Department of Revenue Administration, said she thinks art can enhance the services her office provides.
“Because our work can be so sterile and numbers-based, and oftentimes serious, you don’t always notice the art,” Ward said. “But if it was gone, you would say, ‘Okay, I’m in this room with a taxpayer who’s upset with me, and there’s also nothing on the walls.’ ”
“I think it adds comfort to an environment that could otherwise be uncomfortable,” she said.
Sometimes, the placement of the art depends upon how the building was funded.
Greg Heilshorn, public affairs officer for the New Hampshire National Guard, said the agency has other buildings that might get more traffic. But they were all federally funded.
“There is nothing even remotely close to this piece in any of our other facilities,” he said.
Heilshorn said he wishes the National Guard had more art like its Percent for Art pieces – ones created thoughtfully, with the Guard’s core values in mind.
“To see two pieces of art that were done by artists outside of the military organization done in such a way that they really captured the essence of who we are – it reinforces why we do what we do,” he said.
Though a fair share require permission, a majority of the Percent for Art pieces can be seen without much hassle.
Some are in courthouses, like the abstract wood spiral sculpture in the main stairwell of the Manchester District Court.
One is in the New Hampshire Fish and Game Headquarters – a large oil painting of a rushing stream through a green forest.
Others are at the community colleges, such as stained glass DNA strands running across the windows in Grappone Hall, the new building at NHTI that houses the nursing school.
When it comes down to it, the program is about incorporating art into residents’ everyday lives, Lupi said.
She added, “People don’t have to go to a museum to engage with a piece of fine art.”