Sunday, 2 February 2014

Public Desire For Public Art

On the mean art-littered streets of Chicago, Victoria Yates finds herself questioning the state of public art closer to home. 

It all started with a sculpture; a bright red bird in the heart of Chicago’s granite business core. The unknowing pedestrian gazing up at a thick thigh girder could be forgiven for seeing the shadow of a War of the Worlds Martian looming at 53 feet. The alien is in fact 50 tons of Alexander Calder’s Flamingo. The blunt, burning red, nicknamed ‘Calder red,’ was chosen to offset the black and steel surrounds of federal buildings. And it succeeds. In a starkly slushy Chicago winter, the square feels like that old punch line, what’s black, white and red all over?

One block over you’ll find the big haired, long nosed, one-eyed brown metal face of an untitled Picasso (1967) staring out from the Daley Plaza. It’s usually surrounded by government employees on lunch break –sandwich stoop by Picasso. Across the road the humbler curves of Miro’s Chicago (1981) is ready to embrace, ceramic arms akimbo. And this is just two blocks. Two absurdly cultural blocks. I couldn’t help wondering, how did Gun-Crime USA get so arty?

Unveiled in 1974 Flamingo was the first commission of the United States General Service Administration –the boys who brought the American government its staples, office space, and a rockin’ motor pool­­– and the first piece created for the Percent for Art program. Under Percent for Art legislation, new projects are required to set aside a certain amount of their budget ­–in Chicago’s case around 1.33 percent– to the creation or installation of publically visible original art. And it is clearly working. 

This isn’t a Federally mandated program, the sort of big government Republican nightmare come to force a vulgar, modern, aesthetic agenda on wholesome Americana. Instead, it is controlled and mandated by individual municipalities. And some of them have let slip the dogs of war. In 2011, after 31 years, Wisconsin repealed PfA. In March of last year, a Las Vegas councilman introduced the idea that the entertainment capital of the world should follow suit on demolishing their 10-year-old program (in May the council voted near unanimously to uphold the program). One month later, Ann Arbor, Michigan, extended a temporary halt to spending that had been set aside for their ordinance. And these are just a sampling. I can understand the civic reasoning. We’re all struggling under modern day monetary minimalism, and after all, it’s not on par with police, fire, or food. But it still feels unconscionably reductive. If the hard-luck locals of Detroit, the poster-child for financial fallout, will still vote to instate a millage for the Detroit Arts Institute –to pay more taxes for art– there must still be value in arts’ virtues.

Bob & Roberta Smith has been one of Old Flo's most outspoken defenders. 
Tweeting on 02/02/14: "This time last year I was with one of the women I love 

Undoubtedly in tough economic times art becomes a luxury that few people defend as necessity. As the downturn wreaked havoc on the international cultural landscape, some estimates had one in 10 of the USA’s arts organisations in increasingly dire financial straits. And by this I don’t just mean the niche alternative venues and backroom art galleries for the 90s print, skinny jeans crowd. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art management was forced to slash 14% of their staff to offset the crumbling value of investments. The international woeful war on the arts has even reached into the pockets of the seemingly stable silver screen sector. The British Film Institute was served with a 15% budget cut starting in 2010 that led to wide-scale restructuring and layoffs. 

In November 2012, Tower Hamlets Council took centre-stage in the money-minded movement, making headlines for their plan to sell off Old Flo, Henry Moore’s lounging park fixture Draped Seated Woman (1957-8). The sculpture, estimated to be worth millions, would be sold to relieve recession-wrought red from the low-income community Flo calls home. Although the idea provoked a nationwide outcry, the council stood by their sterling motivations, arguing that the funds could provide much needed relief for a severely taxed area. And who could blame them.

Of course, the value of public art has come under scrutiny many times before this most recent Wall Street cock-up. In 1979, the Art-in-Architecture program commissioned a work for the open space abutting the then new Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan. They brought in the esteemed minimalist sculptor Richard Serra at the recommendation of a panel of experts from the National Endowment of the Arts. And so Tilted Arc was born in 1981. A 120-foot long, 12-foot high wall of COR-TEN steel made to eliminate the need for paint by forming a rust-like coat after years of weather exposure. It was magnificent and almost instantly acrimonious. 

The wall completely bisected the plaza space, creating an obstacle that forced commuters to interact with its existence on a daily basis. But for detractors, the playful intent was instead a hindrance to the daily movements of plaza workers. Others argued that the wall could serve as a bomb shield, preventing adequate surveillance of the area. Within months of its arrival, 1,300 employees had signed a petition to have it removed. Serra and his defenders raised their opposing battle cry. The site-specific work, he argued, was built to engage with the Foley Plaza space. To remove it was to destroy the work in its entirety, as surely as if the wall were simply demolished for scrap. The trial became a public test of art law. Despite high-profile artists coming to Serra’s defence (122 pro witnesses to a naysaying 58 against), the jury voted 4-1 to remove the sculpture. It was dismantled and stored by federal workers overnight on March 15th 1989.

Some public art, on the other hand, has become so beloved we will happily set aside law for its maintenance. In Bristol and London initially contraband Banksy pieces that have sprung up for decades as part of a guerrilla revolt on public walls are preserved with reverential fervour. When one is painted over, it makes for a round of council bashing ‘what buffoons’ rhetoric in the pages of nationally syndicated media houses. His anti-establishment messages are now available internationally on all manner of consumerist garb: tote bag, t-shirt, tea towel. Banksy might be the UK-high priest of graffiti gone glam –so glam he famously unveiled his long hidden identity to revel in the national treasure credit– but Brazil is in a league of its own when it comes to scale. 

In 2009, Brazil legalised street art (so long as it is condoned by the property owner). The result has been years of beautification across cities like Rio de Janeiro where the striking slashes of colour have brought a carnival in still life to any surface that caught imagination. In particular, the sprawling favelas have seen an outpouring of artistic intervention, bringing with it public art initiatives to reach the most at risk populations. In a world of ever-increasing urban sprawl, street art is a subversive –dare I say ‘cool’– medium, reinserting the individual. At its best it is public art. Indeed, it often seems to be public art in its most widely appreciated form.

Perhaps the hiccough comes in the specific ‘art’ label, a term that at the best of times conjures preconceptions. For decades some of the world’s most treasured attractions have brought the hoards to the yard to selfie with some serious public art. The Borglum’s Mount Rushmore was started in 1927 with the aim of bringing tourism to South Dakota soil, an achievement that sees some 3 million tourists at its feet every year. To the East, Bartholdi’s lady Liberty has stood as a symbol of freedom and the United States –some would say the symbol– since its dedication in 1886. On our side of the Atlantic, a 61cm peeing boy has been delighting visitors to Brussels since 1618. Go figure. Walking around London, we’re surrounded by a wallpaper of monuments –to wars, to leaders, to great characters– but few would talk about our pervasive public art the way they would of Chicago’s more than 700 works.

And yet we have in our possession one of the strangest case studies of old Hollywood England meets modern art. At the turn of the millennium, 150 years since it was left unfinished, Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth was finally put to work as the platform for three transient contemporary art works (Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, Woodrow’s Regardless of History and Whiteread’s Monument). The idea was rekindled in 2005, capturing our media and attention. It is the Times Square billboard ad buy of a public art placement –talk about exposure. Everyday, the grey elegance of Trafalgar swarms with footfall. Reams of moving jackets weave through the square, standing at the feet of Nelson and his watchful lions. A requiem to a moment in British naval history that has stalwartly watched Londoners’ evolving fashion since 1845. At the four corners of the square are other monuments to British antiquity and identity in the form of Henry Havelock, Charles James Napier, George the IV, and (at least for the next 12 months) Katharina Fritsch’s giant blue 'Cock.’            

For poor Old Flo, the tale has taken a turn away from the chopping block. In December 2012, Art Fund went detective to trace the gal’s ownership, and managed to throw a neat curve into proceedings. Mere months before auction, Bromley Council asserted their rightful claim over the national treasure, further pledging not to sell the work and to keep it on public display. The Henry Moore Foundation, in an open letter on November 3rd 2012, defended the sculpture’s place in the community, maintaining that the work “was a demonstration of the post-war belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality.” Moore’s vision might yet live on, but as a litmus for public art, the resounding take-away from Flo’s predicament was a very general apathy.

Victoria Yates

Image Captions:
Alexander Calder, Flamingo (1974) - photo: Vincent Desjardins
Picasso, Untitled (1967)
Henry Moore, Draped Seated Woman (1957-8) - photo: Bob & Roberta Smith
Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1981)
Selaron Stairway - photo: Jorge Selarin
Katharina Fritsch, Hahn/Cock (2013)

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