Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Quick and Dirty on Controversy in Public Art - Past Edition

Richard Serra with Tilted Arc. Image via Minimalissimo
So far in my summer public art mini-series I've focused on the positives--public art beautifies, attracts tourists (and their dollars), and can even solve complex environmental challenges. Hooray for public art! But I've been largely ignoring a huge white elephant in the room--public art has a tendency to attract controversy. Public art controversy (like litterbugs) comes in different shapes and sizes, stemming from hot button issues such as use of public funds and racial tensions, as well as concerns about aesthetics. It's important for anyone advocating for public art (or working to get some installed) to be familiar with these past controversies so they may understand what can get some people so riled up about public art. Let's have a look at two major public art controversies of years past, shall we?


Richard Serra: Oppressive Abstraction?
     One would me remiss to mention the topic of public art controversies without addressing the notorious Tilted Arc episode of the 1980s. In the mid-1970s, the General Services Administration (GSA) Art in Architecture program commissioned renowned sculptor Richard Serra to create a work for Federal Plaza, a vast square outside the Javits Federal Office building in downtown New York City. (Serra was recommended for the job by a peer panel from the National Endowment for the Arts.) The result was Tilted Arc - a 72 ton, 120 foot long, 12 foot high sculpture of solid cor-ten steel (which appears weathered and rusted). The site-specific sculpture was oriented to diagonally bisect Federal Plaza.
     Tilted Arc was installed in 1981 to a nearly immediate outcry from the denizens of the Javits building and other nearby offices. Opponents of the sculpture felt it was oppressive, and, essentially, an eyesore--large and unsightly. Some tried to argue that Tilted Arc attracted rats and could even harbor terrorists, but the main opposition was based on the aesthetics of the work (and the use of public funds to finance such a publicly disliked project.)
     Through the early 1980s, several petitions requesting the removal of Tilted Arc were circulated and submitted to the GSA; this led to a hearing in 1984 held by the main opponents of the sculpture. Folks on both side of the controversy testified; however, most on the pro-Serra side were curators, scholars, and gallerists from the art world, not local office workers who encountered the sculpture on a regular basis. This group argued for artist's freedom of expression and for the importance of Serra as a modern sculptor. (You can read testimony from both sides here.) It's also worth noting that the five-person panel deciding the hearing did not include any public art experts.
     After three days of hearing testimony from both sides of the argument, the panel voted to remove the sculpture 4-1, and Serra sued for breach of contract. Though GSA had proposed to move the sculpture, Serra said that because sculpture was site-specific, to re-locate it would be to destroy it. Serra lost his lawsuit, and Tilted Arc was removed in 1989. (It's in storage today.)

Tilted Arc from above. Image via Minimalissimo.

John Ahearn's Bronx Bronzes
     John Ahearn's public sculpture style could not be much different from Richard Serra's, yet just a few years after Tilted Arc Ahearn found himself at the center of another public art contretemps. Ahearn, a white resident of the South Bronx, was known both in the his neighborhood and in the art world for his painted bronze sculptures depicting local residents  in a vibrant and positive fashion--using a medium traditionally reserved for heroes and allegorical figures to depict everyday people. In the wake of Tilted Arc, Ahearn's familiarity with this community (and the community's familiarity with his work) made him an attractive choice for a public art commission for the 44th Precinct Police Station in the Bronx financed by New York's Percent for Art program. (Percent for Art provides that "one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for City facilities.")
     Ahearn's works for the 44th Precinct were meant to be no different than his previous sculptures and relief murals that had been well received in the community. Ahearn created casts of local residents--a young girl on roller skates and two boys, one alone, another with his dog--for the commission. But there was an immediate outcry when the sculptures were unveiled in 1992. (You can see what the sculptures look like here.)
     Some community members said sculptures represented a side of their neighborhood that they did not want presented--especially in their highly prominent location along the Grand Concourse, a main Bronx thoroughfare for residents, tourists and outsiders visiting Yankee Stadium, and people passing through en route elsewhere. The youth depicted in the sculptures were idle--hanging out on the street--and, some felt, intimidating, even reminiscent of drug dealers and hustlers from the neighborhood. Some wondered why Ahearn had not chosen to depict a student in graduation robes or youth in the area engaged in more "productive" activities For this reason, some believed Ahearn's depictions of these African American and Latino youths came from a place of racial misunderstanding, or even racism.
     The Bronx Bronzes controversy spread to Manhattan as the press got wind of the furor surrounding the sculptures (and the fact that the project cost $99K in city funds). Ahearn wanted to maintain close ties and a good relationship with his community, and was dissapointed and upset by this reception. Unlike Serra, who fought to keep Tilted Arc in place, he insisted the sculptures be removed and even absorbed the cost for the sculptures re-location. The Bronx Bronzes now reside at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens.

Navigating the Aesthetic, and the Political
     Both the Bronx Bronzes and Tilted Arc illustrate how public art projects can become contentious for the public they are intended to benefit. Aesthetics may be a problem; politics, too. But both cases make it clear that community acceptance and outreach is imperative for a successful public art project. Indeed, one reason cited as a failure of Tilted Arc is the GSA's lack of community outreach prior to the sculpture's installation. So the imposing, enormous steel slab may have seemingly appeared out of thin air to some of its opponents.  Had there been some preparation, or had they known Serra's intentions for the work before seeing it installed, local residents and workers may have not felt so strongly opposed to the idea of Tilted Arc.
     In the case of John Ahearn, city officials overlooked the artist's racial difference from the South Bronx community because he had worked in the community before; they felt he was a safe choice and that nothing could go wrong. In his interview with Ahearn in Dialogues in Public Art, Tom Finkelpearl notes that city officials were so comfortable with Ahearn's work that it was barely reviewed during the creative process. By the time the sculptures were installed, controversy could not be avoided. (The silver lining- both artists continue to have successful careers today.)

For more information about Tilted Arc and the Bronx Bronzes controversies, I recommend (once again) Tom Finkelpearl's terrific book Dialogues in Public Art. (If you are interested in public art at all this book is invaluable). This College of Fine Arts at Arizona University page also provides a painstakingly detailed history of Tilted Arc. And for more on other public art controversies in New York City, check out this WNYC story.

Though these two episodes have greatly affected how public art is commissioned and implemented today, especially when funded publicly, we are not immune to such controversies in the 21st century--or even in 2011. Next week I'll address some very current public art controversies going on outside of New York City.

What do you think about these two controversies? Would you want Tilted Arc outside your office? Were the Bronx Bronzes insensitive? Or were these artists crucified by a public that misunderstood their intentions for their works? Is the answer somewhere in between? We're talking about public art, so let's hear from the Art Advocado public!

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