On display: Does the public really want public art?
You can't put art in a public place without upsetting somebody. That's the nature of public art: every powerful artistic statement will satisfy some and offend others. Just the location of a monumental work of art– at a crossroads of commerce, right there in everyone's everyday path– creates controversy.
"If art doesn't raise questions, it isn't good art," says the city's director of strategic planning, Satyendra Singh Huja, who has been promoting public art since the 1980s.
"I would like Charlottesville to be known even more as a visual arts town," says Jill Hartz, director of the University of Virginia Art Museum, "so people will say, 'If you want to see what's happening with the visual arts, go to Charlottesville.'"
Add to the enthusiasm of city visionaries such as Huja and Hartz the creative energy of many local visual artists, and you have a future destined to be enriched with art– and controversy.
Metallice Glosserous and its creator, Rod Marshall-Roth
Charlottesville enjoys a healthy history of public works of art– many saddled with their own controversies. Even before the bronze figure of Robert E. Lee, downtown in today's Lee Park, was unveiled in 1924, people complained that the sculpture's pedestal was too small and that neither Lee nor his horse, Traveller, looked true to life. A small sampling:
* In 1978 observers complained that the city's newest image of Thomas Jefferson– a young, casual TJ in bronze, installed at the new North Grounds Law School by the 7 Society did not properly honor the university founder.
* In 1981, when David Breeden's soapstone sculpture Family went up in front of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, city elder Bernard P. Chamberlain wrote a letter to the Daily Progress calling it a "monstrosity" and pleading that it be moved inside.
* In 1997, feminists demonstrated against what they considered the degraded position of Sacagawea in the Lewis & Clark statue where Ridge, McIntire, and Main streets meet. Many have grumbled about George Rogers Clark's superior attitude toward the native Americans who share his pedestal on West Main Street, near the 14th Street railroad bridge.
So far, though, no Charlottesville statue has ignited the firestorm that greeted the proposal to commemorate tennis player Arthur Ashe in Richmond. In the mid-1990s, Virginia Heroes, a foundation established by Ashe to support Richmond schoolchildren, initiated the plan privately, going so far as to select an artist and approve a design (which the artist had discussed with Ashe before his death). But since the piece was to go in a public place, the City of Richmond became involved, and the issue exploded.
Why show the great African-American icon weakened by AIDS in his later days, dressed in unlaced tennis shoes and a warm-up suit? Why not hold a public competition for this plum of a commission? How dare the City consider memorializing Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue along with Confederate heroes– shouldn't he stand in the planned Sports Hall of Fame instead? But wouldn't his statue there limit Ashe to the role of athletic hero and ignore his civic and educational contributions? Who decided this sculpture was any good anyhow? And by the way, did anyone ask the neighbors?
Meanwhile, Richmonder Paul DiPasquale was sculpting away, spurred by the $400,000 budgeted by Virginia Heroes to design, cast, and install the artwork. It took 18 months, noisy with public static, for the Richmond City Council to approve the plan, and Charlottesville sculptor and foundryman Robert Bricker was given the go-ahead to cast the final bronze.
On Ashe's birthday, July 10, 1996, the sculpture was dedicated, positioned in the center of Monument Avenue at Roseneath Road.
Maybe Richmonders were placated as they watched, in 2000, the unveiling of another Arthur Ashe memorial sculpture in front of New York's National Tennis Center, this one budgeted at about $600,000. It's a muscular nude, poised to serve a tennis ball but holding just the stub of a tennis racket handle– meant, says sculptor Eric Fischl, to symbolize a baton, ready to be passed to the new generation.
"This is awful. This is not what Arthur was about," Emily Moore, executive director of the Alliance Junior Tennis League, told Sports Illustrated about the New York piece. "Where are the books? Where are the children?"
Public art will always make somebody mad.
For one thing, these days we have trouble with heroes. In this post-postmodernist world of ours, almost all the art recently installed in our fair city is either abstract or blandly noncontroversial. By contrast, in the first two decades of this century, thanks to city benefactor Paul G. McIntire, Charlottesville installed four monumental sculptures commemorating Virginia heroes of national stature: Lewis & Clark, Robert E. Lee, George Rogers Clark, and Stonewall Jackson.
Today, few heroes get their own statues– and perhaps the Arthur Ashe controversy provides one clue why.
"We are not into idol worship," says Huja.
Today's public art approaches heroes with a twist, says UVA's Hartz.
"I call them interventions," says Hartz, "pieces that make people think about things in a slightly different way. It can help us gain a new sense of history."
Jill Hartz, Director of the University of Virginia Art Museum
In the 21st century, it seems, public art turns symbolic, asks questions, and invites reinterpretation instead of simply commemorating the late great.
Two years ago, a regional exhibition was built on the "interventionist" plan.
Dubbed "Hindsight/Fore-Site: Art for the New Millennium," the exhibition was sponsored by the University's art museum (then called the Bayly). Artists submitted pieces, in Hartz's words, "inspired by Thomas Jefferson's life and time, to make his intellect and our early American history alive and relevant today."
* Miami artist Tim Curtis erected a 12-foot-tall steel great coat, suggesting the fashion of the early American republic, but he left it headless, so each passerby could project the Jefferson he or she believed might have worn such a coat. (After its removal from the County Office Building's front lawn, Curtis' piece, "Visionary Spirit," was acquired by Greg Graham; it now stands at Edgehill, the Shadwell home of TJ's favorite grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, now owned by Graham's family.)
* The Monocan Indian Community and the Living Earth Design Group created a burial mound near Darden Towe Park and, making performance a part of their art, stamped toy plastic Indian figures into the soil.
* New York artist Rosemarie Fiore staged a performance outside the Monticello Visitor's Center (the closest site possible to Monticello, says Hartz). As Fiore, dressed in Indiana Jones-type gear, performed an imaginary archaeological excavation, she talked with visitors about Jefferson and his legacy, and tapes of those discussions became part of the artwork. (After a while, Visitor's Center officials decided the big hole was an eyesore and asked Fiore to leave before the exhibit's scheduled end date.)
* Martha Jackson-Jarvis, a nationally renowned African-American artist from Washington, D.C., was drawn to the seldom-visited slave cemetery at Montpelier in Orange County, where rough little piles of stones are the only grave markers. Jackson-Jarvis constructed what she called "winnowing houses," miniature roofed shelters to acknowledge more fully the presence of the people buried below. (Jackson-Jarvis and Hartz hoped Montpelier might let her houses remain, but at the end of the show, they were disassembled.)
But despite funding from numerous sources including such powerhouses as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Arts Commission, Philip Morris, and Wachovia, the Hindsight/Fore-site show didn't get too much attention.
"We didn't have a budget for publicity," Hartz admits, and she complains that the only major coverage was an eight-page article in now-defunct 64 magazine.
People drove by the headless great coat and scratched their heads, or they glimpsed the white gauze dress flying from the coal tower (an installation by Staunton's Todd Murphy) and wondered what it was.
Some might argue that if people had had more understanding of the exhibit's mission, the impact might have been greater. Some artists might counter that wondering is key to the experience.
Avoiding controversy, the City of Charlottesville has tended to approve innocuous art, often within a larger community development plan. Flower murals painted on the sides of West Main buildings in the 1980s invited the community to consider new life for the then run-down neighborhood– and look where we are now.
Cast iron silhouettes were bolted permanently to the new Downtown Mall in the late '70s or early '80s, back when only Williams Corner Bookstore and Miller's stayed open past 5pm. During those early days, the Downtown Mall sat fairly empty in the evening, peopled mainly by those immoveable flat-black figures.
Some aesthetic improvements got funding thanks to the "Percent-for-Art" program passed by City Council in 1993, which guaranteed that one percent of the City's major capital improvement project budgets would be spent for public art.
When the City Hall Annex was built in early 1989-1990, the City commissioned tile fresco panels on Market Street by UVA art professor Megan Marlatt and the magnificent oil cityscape by Marion Reynolds which hangs almost unnoticed at the far end of the Annex's ground-floor hallway.
Percent-for-Art is still in place, but not every capital improvement project has received its benefits. As the Arthur Ashe examples illustrate, commissioned monumental sculptures can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, often more for a single piece than one percent of a project might cover.
Some works of art have gotten lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. In 1994, the City's Urban Design Committee approved a metal sculpture, to be created by local artists Fred Crist and David Munn. But City Council voted it down on aesthetic reasons.
"I'm just not going to appropriate a large amount of money for something I don't feel strong about," Councilwoman Kay Slaughter told reporters at the time.
Local sculptor Stephen Strumlauf is one of the few whose work the City acquired with Percent-for-Art funds. His roly-poly cherub, purchased by the City for $10,000 in the '80s, sat on the Downtown Mall for years, the little fellow's nudity causing very little controversy, Strumlauf says. Then vandals destroyed the base by knocking it over and letting the 250-pound bronze roll down the Mall.
Strumlauf has repaired and refurbished the figure with stainless steel rods and has advised the City– for the third time– to buy a solid stone base into which he can sink the rods permanently. He even has a patron, local author Stefan Bechtel, whose foundation will donate the money for a better base.
"But they couldn't figure out how to take his money," says Strumlauf. "They're just confused."
So the repaired sculpture sits on the artist's property today, four years after the base crumpled. Hearing rumors that the City might need to replace all the bricks on the Mall, Strumlauf suspects that his barefoot boy won't be back downtown any time soon.
Such fiascos seem to have stalled the acquisition of new public art in the city. Yet there is hope. When no art is acquired as part of a capital improvement project, the one percent still accumulates. Funds in the Percent-for-Art account total about $120,000 today, according to Huja, but the City is doling the money out slowly, preferring to get a lot of art for a little money.
Enter ArtInPlace.com. A non-profit corporation that coalesced two years ago with the help of a small group of local art lovers, they have made possible seven large outdoor sculptures this year, with more on the way to replace those in October. The group's members have experience not just in art but also in finance, property development, and marketing.
The five ArtInPlace board members are president Elizabeth Breeden, who for 28 years has run the business side of the family's Biscuit Run Studios, selling the creations of her husband, David Breeden, and now her son, Christian; Huja, speaking for the City; brothers Blake and Charles Hurt, second-generation Charlottesville entrepreneurs and artists in their own right; and Kitty Stroud, who organizes promotional events and volunteer helpers.
"If you set me down in a new town, I wouldn't know how to find these same five people," says ArtInPlace president Elizabeth Breeden, who has lived in the Charlottesville area for 29 years.
ArtInPlace president Elizabeth Breeden
Artists willing to lend pieces to the city for a year submit proposals to ArtInPlace. A panel of judges– the board members, fine arts consultant Morgan Peyton Heiskell, and artists Dan Mahan and Richard Crozier– selects pieces and matches them to sites owned and offered by the City. Artists receive $300 to defray transportation and installation costs– moving and setting in place some of these big pieces can be quite an operation– but they are expected to carry their own insurance.
Why would any artist agree to such a hassle for $300?
"It's like a gallery," says Elizabeth Breeden, voicing ArtInPlace's public answer to this question. Artists' names and contact information, while not on the pieces themselves, are posted on the website.
If an art connoisseur falls in love with a piece displayed through the program, he or she can buy it at the price set by the artist. The artist makes the deal and delivery, and ArtInPlace gets a 25 percent commission.
This year someone wanted Rod Marshall-Roth's "Metallice Glosserous," the aluminum tree at the corner of Preston and Harris, but the artist chose not to sell it; Richard Whitehill sold a smaller version of "The Biker," the piece racing downhill from Nelson into McIntire Road; and Aaron Fein is negotiating a new installation of "Transformer" which stood in the median strip of the Route 250 bypass until it was vandalized last December.
"The city and the public get art, and the artist gets publicity," explains Huja. He recites the numbers of cars passing by this year's ArtInPlace sites, an indication to him of the exposure each work receives. Every day 38,000 cars drive by the spot on the 250 Bypass, opposite the fire station, where "Transformer" used to stand. "Metallice Glosserous"– on the median of Preston Avenue– and "Man in Motion"– on the median of Emmet Street near Barracks Road– are seen by 33,000 drivers.
Charlottesville's Director of Strategic Planning Satyendra Huja
Huja claims that, despite some citizen complaints that the sculptures are traffic hazards, it's best for the city and the artists to have these pieces standing where the largest number of cars whiz by.
"There are so few venues for artists, and especially those who make monumental pieces," says David Breeden, creator of 37 monumentals in cities in North and South America. "For those who are just starting out, this can be their premier experience."
Installation for monumental pieces can be a costly engineering process, and for beginning artists, ArtInPlace helps by building footers and erecting the heavy pieces. Breeden calls the offer ArtInPlace makes to sculptors "a tremendous opportunity."
The good news is that, for very little cost, ArtInPlace helps the city grace busy places with public works of art. The bad news is that artists get little in return for their effort– a miniscule fraction of the hundreds of thousands paid for full-fledged monumentals– and they watch their pieces receive public abuse– verbal and worse.
Amherst sculptor Craig Pleasants thinks ArtInPlace represents a raw deal for artists. Pleasants and his wife, Sheila, work as program director and director of artists' services, respectively, at the Virginia Center of Creative Arts near Sweet Briar College.
"To offer artists $300 to 'defray the costs of transporting' the sculpture to your place and then to expect the artist to accept all liability for insurance is unbelievably insulting," Pleasants wrote to ArtInPlace. "The idea that you are providing 'exposure,' and that artists would be so desperate for that exposure that they would go to the effort and cost of transporting a piece of sculpture to Charlottesville speaks volumes. If you really valued the work of artists, you would be doing some small thing to support their work."
It's a better deal than any artist would get in a gallery, counters Elizabeth Breeden. In her experience, galleries get a 50 percent commission, not only on the pieces in a show but also on any other sales made during the show to buyers in the region. "You have to sign an exclusive" with a gallery, says Breeden, while ArtInPlace requires a commission only if the piece on display is sold.
To Aaron Fein, submitting "Transformer" to ArtInPlace was a "financial investment." A sculptor by trade, he was willing to lend his art in exchange for public exposure. "It was like buying a billboard."
Although intricately constructed of 2,000 handmade steel and plastic parts and attached to the ground by steel rods, "Transformer," appeared to some drivers whizzing past at 40 miles an hour as nothing more than a twisted stretch of chain link fence. Aware of its delicacy, ArtInPlace planners say they sited it on the bypass median so people could see but not touch it.
"ArtInPlace was very clear as we discussed the piece," says Fein. "They told me, 'We can't guarantee its safety. We can't guarantee it will still be up in a year.' They asked me how I felt about that. I wanted to build it still. I wanted the exposure."
Aaron Fein and what is left of Transformer
On Friday, December 23, Fein's "Transformer" was attacked by unidentified vandals. By Saturday, it lay destroyed on the ground. By Sunday, it was gone.
Fein spent Monday, December 26, locating his sculpture. "That was the panic that I had– saving the piece," he says.
But City Works personnel had carefully removed and saved it, and they just as carefully delivered it to the artist's house later that week. "It was like a funeral procession," Fein remembers.
"Transformer" is just one of many art works damaged while on public view. Charlottesville has a reputation for art vandalism, it turns out, which understandably discourages some artists from putting their pieces up in public. Hindsight/Fore-site's "Monument to Sally Hemings," the white dress on a headless metal mannequin above the coal tower, suffered rips, theft, and additions three times over the summer it was on display.
"Maybe it's a distrust for the visual arts in general," says Hartz. "Maybe because this is a Southern town, and since the South is stronger in the literary arts, there is not a lot of respect for public art in this community.
"There just seem to be some people in this community," she continues, "who see public works of art as challenges to destroy, or move, or do something with. They see these works of art as challenges, not as honors."
Or as Elizabeth Breeden puts it: "This is a town that loses mailboxes."
Despite such evidence of hostility, both the University and the City are determined to pump up public art in Charlottesville. Hartz says she wants "to make art a part of one's daily life," so that people "start looking at everything as art.
Besides working to transform the former Bayly into a "community resource"– with plans for a museum shop, a restaurant, an auditorium, and a studio space for hands-on workshops– Hartz also envisions more interventionist exhibits, the next one planned for 2005, in counterpoint with other plans to celebrate the accomplishments of Lewis and Clark (and Sacagawea).
The University Art Museum plans to invite 15 nationally recognized Native American artists to comment on the Lewis & Clark legacy in a show that may, as Hindsight/Fore-site did, sprawl out into the larger community.
Hartz also speaks optimistically of a newly formed Public Art Committee at the university, whose stated mission is to make art more a part of university daily life by "integrating challenging, thoughtful, and carefully considered artworks into the University landscape."
Before, says Hartz, when one wanted the university to approve the installation of a piece of public art, the only authority was an "arboretum" committee.
The City is moving in the same direction. "I think we are going to do more, not less, public art," says Huja, noting that the City asks private individuals and businesses to envision art in their development plans.
It's working. As they develop the Lofts at Belmont at the old CSX site by the coal tower, developer Frank Stoner and architect Bruce Wardell have agreed to sponsor a contest for a permanent public sculpture on the site, and they have asked ArtInPlace to help solicit and judge entries.
Elizabeth Breeden sees great promise in this alliance among private developers, her nonprofit art foundation, and City planners. For her, it shows that public art begets more public art.
"When you start putting art in public places, you get people interested in having art around. You get artists hired to be part of idea sessions," Breeden says.
When plans materialize, says Huja, the City will consider making Percent-for-Arts funds available to make them happen. He hesitates to say much about a proposal not yet approved by City Council, but he hints at another pet public art project.
Huja hopes that in the next year City Council will approve the idea of assigning artists to paint city fire hydrants, making the city look even more like the quirky, colorful, sophisticated, art-conscious community it really is.