Art in face: Are they artsy or just plain fartsy?


Published December 11, 2003 in issue #0249 of The Hook

Surely you have a favorite: Maybe it was the fighting lions who menaced the median of the 250 bypass last year. Or perhaps it's the bicyclist, forever careering down the hill toward McIntire Road. Or were you disgusted by the inside-out fish at the Locust exit of the 250 bypass?

Whether you love or hate the sculptures installed each year by the nonprofit group ArtInPlace, one thing's certain: They've stirred up strong feelings. And while that's just what the three-year-old project's founder, Elizabeth Breeden, hopes for, she's concerned that the criticism seems to have faded this year.

While she credits the "improved quality" of the pieces for their apparently more placid reception, she wants a little more griping.

"You worry that people just aren't noticing them," Breeden says.

Perhaps she needn't worry.

On the message board at artinplace.org, a slew of locals have weighed in on the new pieces, and more than a few aren't any happier with this year's batch of sculptures than the past years'.

"ArtInPlace is a wonderful idea, but the reality is not wonderful," writes poster John. "How would you like to be in a hospital for a necessary surgery only to discover that your surgeon was simply a self-proclaimed physician? Believe it or not, there exist criteria for the creation of transcendental beauty, achieved through discipline and no-nonsense learning about visual vocabulary. No, the things I have seen here are quite simply simple-minded and blind."

Ouch!

Lee Easton, a retired technical sergeant and teacher in the U.S. Air Force, is even harsher in his criticism and isn't a bit shy about going on the record.

"What idiot let the so-called ArtInPlace people put that trash in our city?" Easton rages. "Whoever it was should be made to sit and look at it for a period of time. Then they could put him or her in a rubber room where they wouldn't hurt themselves."

That "idiot" is Satyendra Huja, the city's retired-but-still-working director of strategic planning, who for the past 30 years has been one of Charlottesville's strongest proponents of the arts. In fact, the city's Percent for Art program, in which one percent of any capital improvement project budget is earmarked for public art, was Huja's pet project, and was passed by City Council in 1993. That program pays for the ArtInPlace.

When asked how he'd like to spend an afternoon in a rubber room, Huja laughs.

 "I'm glad this man is excited," he replies. And he respects Easton's point of view. "Art does provoke," he says. "If it doesn't provoke, it's not very good art."

Easton disputes Huja's opinion of "good" art. A self-proclaimed art lover, Easton says he's seen masterpieces in the Louvre in Paris, the Rodin museum in London, and the Vatican in Rome.

"That is art!" he exclaims. "Not the things made out of junked car parts that they have placed where people have to see them in this city. The first time I saw those two lions in the median out on the by-pass, I almost wrecked my car."

Huja's response is simple: "People have different tastes," he says.

But for every vocal critic of the ArtInPlace project, there's a fan singing its praises. Consider those fighting felines, titled "Louisa Lions" by self-described folk artist John Anderson.

"Where are the beautiful lions?" asks one poster on the message board. "They were my favorite sculptures! I went to show them to my Mom-in-law, and they were gone! I hope no harm came to them!"

Barbara Chamberlain-Haynes, an art lover who works at the Chamber of Commerce, says she and her husband were also "charmed" by the lion sculptures. "It made the commute worth it," she says.

Even the piece that arguably attracted the most negative public response, "Fish" by Breeden's son, Christian, has its supporters.

Sally Taylor, a nanny, says car trips were made infinitely more exciting for the two-and-a-half-year-old in her care. "He wanted to switch his car seat so he could always see the 'monster fish,'" she laughs. In fact, since the fish was removed, Taylor has taken the child to visit it at Breeden's home, where it now adorns the driveway.

It's this kind of attention from diverse members of the community that make the project "thrilling," says Leah Stoddard, director of Second Street Gallery.

"It makes you kind of snap out of your day-to-day grind and notice something different," Stoddard says. "You're perfectly free to like it or hate it."

Stoddard also thinks the future of ArtInPlace looks bright. "Every year the quality of the work has increased, the interest has increased," she says. "This group currently is very strong."

Breeden says the success of ArtInPlace is unusual in a city the size of Charlottesville. She attributes that to the support from the city, which allows the organization to lease the land on which each piece sits.

"We've gotten calls from cities in the northeast wondering how we've done it," she says.

The city provides ArtInPlace an operating budget of "up to $10,000," says Breeden, who adds that the organization has never charged the city more than $6,500– just enough to cover expenses. Breeden and ArtInPlace's two other co-founders, brothers Charlie and Blake Hurt, work on a volunteer basis, as does the webmaster for www.artinplace.org

Each of the 10 artists is given $300 to transport the work to the site, a small figure that eliminates many out-of-town artists.

Breeden cites one Connecticut artist who had sculpted a ballerina, but it didn't get displayed. "She wanted $36,000 to transport it," Breeden explains with a laugh.

Despite the shoestring budget, ArtInPlace does have one additional source of revenue: 25 percent of the sale price of any of the pieces on display that sell. For instance, the Lousia Lions now have a home at a residence in Albemarle County, though their owner requested anonymity for fear of vandalism.

And the city government has purchased one piece each year– at a cost of $2,500 to $5,000, according to Huja– for a permanent installation. In 2001, that piece was the bicyclist on McIntire; the second year was the stainless steel tree on Preston Avenue; and this year the City bought the towering metal daffodils on Monticello Road near the I-64 interchange.

Huja says that input to the ArtinPlace website helps determine which pieces the city will buy.

Breeden puts it a bit more succinctly: "They make fairly mainstream selections," she says.

And chances are the city won't have a bigger pool to select from anytime soon.

Although the number of applications from artists wanting to place works grows each year– this year 55 artists vied for 10 spots– Breeden says the program won't grow much bigger. Instead, she and her fellow ArtInPlacers are in talks with the city about some new public art projects, one involving painting fire hydrants, another a collaboration between residents and UVA's architecture school on a new building. Both projects, she stresses, are still in the early planning stages.

In the meantime, Breeden says, every year is a learning experience. This year, the pedestal for an entry by her husband, David, "A Graceful View of the World," is too large, she says. But the budget constraints make a pedestal switch impossible.

She also faults the placement of the briefcase-carrying suit, titled "A Bad Case of the Mondays," on the 250 bypass.

"You don't really see it right until it's in your rear view mirror, or until you've seen it three or four times," Breeden notes, adding that the piece may be moved to the hillside by McIntire Park.

Breeden says Aaron Fein, whose sculpture "Transformer" occupied the 250 median two years ago, summed up the problem with roadside art. "It's hard to see something at 45mph," he told her.

Apparently vandals didn't have a hard time seeing Fein's sculpture. After only two months on display, the piece was knocked down and destroyed in December 2001 [see sidebar]. City crews carefully removed the piece and returned it to Fein, who then restored it. It's now on display in the sculpture garden at the county's Baker-Butler Elementary School.

Fein's piece is not the only ArtInPlace work to have been vandalized. Breeden says each year someone has painted a smiley face on one of the works.

And although one driver's letter printed in the Daily Progress portrayed the placement of the bicycle sculpture as a road hazard, no accidents-as-a-result-of-art have been reported. Should that happen, the artists are protected. Breeden says each artist must carry a $1 million liability policy (in addition to the $1 million policy carried by ArtInPlace). Any additional insurance to cover the cost of restoring vandalized pieces is at the discretion of the artist, Breeden says.

Jill Hartz, director of the University of Virginia Art Museum, formerly the Bayly, says that while she's a staunch supporter of public art (she serves on UVA's public art committee), she wishes the city would go a step farther in supporting the ArtInPlace artists.

Forcing artists to cover things like insurance is "taking advantage," says Hartz. "I'd like to see more commitment, involvement, and more of a structured program that would bring permanent art pieces by major artists that would be major draws in this community."

Breeden knows that no amount of work or planning will get everyone to agree about the merits of the works.

"People have complained it's not very good art," she says, "but it's a little audacious to think that your estimation is the estimation."

But she believes that support for the project is strong. People in Charlottesville are "sophisticated enough that they get abstract," says Breeden.

And she points out that, love them or hate them, the sculptures have one added thing going for them: They go away.

"It gives you more flexibility about what it is you're putting out on the public street," says Breeden. "If it's not aesthetically pleasing, perfectly conceived, that's okay because it'll be gone in a year."



PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO



PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO



PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO



PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

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PULL FACT:

City buys

 2001 - the bicyclist on McIntire

2002 - the stainless steel tree on Preston Avenue

2003 - the towering metal daffodils on Monticello Avenue near the I-64 interchange.

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