In an article covering the recent outcry against a bright pink sculpture slated for Queens, NY, the New York Times describes two instances in which the NYC Percent for Art program riled neighbors with its projects. Percent for Art mandates that one percent of city-funded construction budgets go towards public art.
Few [Percent for Art pieces] have caused any major criticism, [NYC Department of Cultural Affairs head Tom] Finkelpearl said. But among those was an installation in 1991 by the sculptor John Ahearn outside a police precinct in the South Bronx. The piece consisted of three bronze figures based on neighborhood residents. But as soon as it was installed, some residents criticized it as racist and said the figures were negative representations of the South Bronx. The opposition quickly grew, eventually leading to the art’s removal.
Another famous firestorm over public art in New York concerned a 12-foot-high, 112-foot-long steel sculpture by Richard Serra, which had been commissioned by the federal General Services Administration for Foley Square in Lower Manhattan. Installed in 1981, the Minimalist work, in the form of a sweeping wall, was criticized by office workers in the area for aesthetic reasons: It was too big, too austere, too threatening. In 1989, after years of debate, hearings and litigation, the piece, “Tilted Arc,” was dismantled and hauled away.
In the Bronx, residents rejected a piece on the grounds that it was offensive. In this case, the public acted to protect themselves against artwork that they felt diminished its neighbors. In the Foley Square case, however, neighbors apparently rejected the art because they found it ugly. What role did their input serve, exactly? Did it benefit the neighborhood, or did it amount to censorship?
In my past reporting for my day job, I’ve heard Finkelpearl note the challenge of striking a balance between public opinion and artistic vision in the creation of public art. I myself am always on the hunt for programs that take on this challenge as part of their mission; I found one recently in Ann Arbor, MI.
The Canoe Imagine Art (CIA) program, managed by the Arts Alliance, asked the public to decide how a pile of retired city-owned canoes would be repurposed into temporary public art sculptures. The winning piece, “Turbine,” was announced last week.
As described by Deb Polich, president and CEO of the Arts Alliance, the CIA voting process was designed specifically to incorporate both expert and public opinion. Its mechanism for doing so was to give initial review to experts, but final say to neighbors.
“The effort on our part in regard to getting the public involved here has been very calculated,” Polich said.
She explained that a jury of local artists, educators, City representatives and others were selected to confirm a handful of projects for installation, and another handful from which the public could choose one favorite.
“We’ve taken the first step to have the jurors go through the pieces first, so that it’s been vetted by people that are accomplished in the field,” but the process also allows them to “be conscious of what the community wants,” she continued.
“I think that public art and design projects have to respect the community they’re in,” she continued.
CIA was created in part as a response to the dissolution of Ann Arbor’s own Percent For Art program, which allocated one percent of capital projects budgets to public art. Reports on that issue indicate that a sizeable chunk of the population was vocally opposed to the program, with criticisms mostly regarding inefficient use of funds. Residents also voted against a Percent for Art alternative, which would have created a tax to fund public art, in 2012.
“We’ve been quietly trying to reengage the public and build a positive response to public art,” Polich said.
The public vote took place over two weeks, by paper ballot and online. According to Polich, “Turbine” won by “a landslide.” Out of 568 total votes, about 56 percent chose this project, she said.
Along with the three jury-selected projects, pictured below, it will be installed in June.