Is That What Dallas Thinks is Public Art?

There have been a number of public art announcements over the past few weeks, the first of which is the choice of the three finalists for the Ross Ave. Gateway Project between Bryan Place and downtown’s Arts District. Surely to the ire of some local-or-nothing art supporters, the three finalists for the $112,913 commission are not from Dallas: Bill FitzGibbons (San Antonio), Koryn Rolstad (Seattle), and Joe O’Connell and Blessing Hancock (Tucson). Follow those links, and you can see the artists’ previous work, but I can’t track down any renderings or proposals for Ross Avenue. 

In addition, the Henderson Art Project has announced the latest winners of the social media popularity contest art competition that plops down sculptures alongside the narrow sidewalks on Henderson Ave. We have been critical of that project, but, nonetheless, it is popular in some circles, as evident by the fact that the city of Mesquite is now planning on creating a copycat project in that city. The language of the boosters should sound familiar: 

Arts Council Managing Director Mike Templeton says that the goal of the project is to support Mayor John Monaco’s focus on project renewal and revitalization of the city. The idea is to promote artful living in Mesquite while improving the city’s appearance.

As our critic wrote last year about Henderson, the impetus for these kinds of public art projects is beautification, often associated with a civic or business desire to boost the desirability of a given area. That’s why meaningless terms like “artful living” are thrown around. “Artful living” belongs to the same category of marketing slogans as “creative class.” These terms are merely used to speak politely about a certain economic demographic that spurs along positive development.

Now, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with targeting this demographic or trying to create a neighborhood that attracts culturally-interested, college-educated folk. People build things and sell things, and they need language and advertising to make their projects attractive.

I’m bringing all this up, rather, not to talk about the motivations of civic and real estate boosters who embrace these kinds of public art projects, but to draw attention to how our city – and specifically the Office of Cultural Affairs – understands the function of public art.

The problem with projects like Henderson (as we went into detail last year) is that, to borrow a phrase from Joan Davidow, the work included is almost necessarily “plop art.” They are works that are taken from the studio and stuck in a space, often with no relation to the setting in which they are placed. Davidow used the phrase to talk about the goofy, dancing, multi-colored steel kids that are now frozen in their perpetual frolicking on downtrodden Singleton Blvd. that is soon to be overrun with real estate speculators.

Without getting into the specifics of the quality of work on Henderson, the very design of the project – its curation through public voting online by viewing images of individual works, and then assigning “winners” a street corner – not only forces out the ability of an artist to really consider the relationship between the work and space, to create public work that exists and functions in relation to its public context, but this curatorial approach necessarily drives away from the project artists who do possess a sensitivity to the way the context within which a work exists participates in the piece’s meaning. 

For example, no matter what the creator of the fire engine red swirling steel sculpture, “Prairie Fire,” intended the viewer to feel, experience, or reflect upon when seeing the work while traveling down Henderson, the piece sits in front of an apartment complex, and like a hood ornament, it participates – even if unconsciously – in the branding of that complex. It makes me think of a quote from artist and SMU art professor Michael Corris, who recently spoke at The Reading Room, challenging artists to avoid the “risk becoming the courtiers of cultural interests eager to hijack our voice.” The Henderson Art Project creates a context for just such a hijacking. 

But Henderson points to deeper issues in the way our city understands the role of public art. Looking for renderings of the proposed projects for the Ross Ave. Gateway, I stumbled across the Office of Cultural Affairs’ definition of public art. From the website: 

Public Art distinguishes the city as a vibrant cultural environment that celebrates the diversity and creative energy of its community. Public art programs, supported by the City, help define a community’s identity and reveal the unique character of neighborhoods. It is a true symbol of a city’s status and maturity, expressing neighborhood pride, positive values, and enhancing the city’s assets. Public art helps green spaces flourish, enhances roadsides, pedestrian corridors, and community parks. A city with public art values and invests in its diversity, identity, and future.

At first reading, this explanation seems well and good, but let’s look closely at what it implies. This definition assigns a function to public art: it is a decoration or an advertisement of ourselves, our “character.” Public art, according to the city, is a “symbol” that communicates our “status.” It is also supposed to communicate our maturity, but if art is reduced to a symbol communicating status, how can it be considered mature? Here the Henderson Art Project – as well as many of the city’s own public art initiatives – fits the criteria for the Office of Cultural Affair’s public art vision: it communicates the status of a district, and its patrons, restaurants, and retail offerings by associating those entities with a commitment to art.  

So what, then, is public art if not a means to which communicate values to the community at large? Isn’t that the role public monuments have served since the Egyptians erected obelisks or the Romans build their sculpted arches? Certainly, the communication of status has always been a function of public art, but is it the primary function? How can it be called “art” when its role is admittedly this purely superficial one? 

For an answer, let’s look to Creative Time. In the forward to Creative Time: the book: 33 years of public art in New York City, Anne Pasternak writes about the value of public art, which has rapidly distinguished itself in the last few decades from “sculptures of heroes on horseback:”

“[Public art] elevates everyday experiences for more people, in more places, more often. . . . It fulfills our conviction that art has an important role to play in daily life and in shaping society. It sets in motion surprising, intimate moments of awe and reflection, challenging us to think anew about our surroundings. The dynamism and unpredictability of the public sphere can be a rich place to experience and share art. I provides an exciting alternative to the hermenticism and elitism of art institutions by bringing art outside, where anybody is free to experience it—and thus beyond traditional limitations of class, race, and education. Public art speaks to people as citizens in ways that are more considered, deep, and more varied than consumeristic messaging, the dominant form of communication in urban public life. Fundamentally, public art is a demonstration of the democratic belief that public spaces must be activated as sites for citizens to be themselves and to express their views, even when those views go against popularly accepted conventions. Public art is democracy in action.”

We must demand high standards of art in the public sphere – art that speaks strongly, that understands its place, that considers its audience (not an abstract audience, but the audience that will experience the art – and how), that is provocative and profound and that is unencumbered by marketing or consumeristic messages, whether that be to promote a business, a developer, a neighborhood, an artist, or even just to promote a sentimental feeling about how we think about ourselves. When we do this we truly consider the man on the street and respect his or her dignity. This kind of public art respects the everyday experience of space, and it protects shared space from being co-opted for the benefit of profit or ego. 

The civic body charged with the commissioning of public art – the Office of Cultural Affairs – needs to share this view of the function of public art, and this function needs to be explicit in the way the city speaks about and promotes its public projects. We need a civic office that understands that from Millennium Park to Bryant Park and throughout the world where groups and artists like Creative Time have supported inspired projects, challenging work has demonstrated that it can be accessible, and more importantly, elevating to everyone — from the homeless person to the businessperson. If it doesn’t, if the language which articulates the office’s function is subpar, then we can hardly expect the projects that follow not to be.

Demanding these standards is to ask artists to take their power seriously and to take Michael Corris’s warning seriously. Artists: do not let your voices be hijacked. And we the public should not let the city’s cultural office hijack our ability to commission meaningful and profound works of public art.

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