The controversy behind public art

by Brian Clarey

The Statue of Liberty

At the beginning of his talk at the Greensboro Community Foundation, public-art consultant, director of Forecast Public Art and publisher of Public Art Review magazine Jack Becker flashed a picture of the Statue of Liberty on the screen behind him.

The country’s most famous piece of public art, he said, was “a controversial project.”

“A gift from France to the United States,” he said. “Doesn’t that sound wonderful?” But the controversy arose from several fronts. When the statue was erected in 1886, a country fresh off the Civil War preferred military-style statues. There was also some flack because the piece was not American in origin — designed by a Frenchman, Frédéric Bartholdi. And because the country was still reeling from the war and the Panic of 1873, which sunk our economy into recession, there was a backlash against the necessary expenditures for the pedestal, which we had to make ourselves.

“[N]o true patriot can countenance any such expenditures for bronze females in the present state of our finances,” opined the New York Times.

In truth, Becker said, “Most of the great public around the world started out quite controversial,” citing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC and the giant statue of Paul Bunyan and his ox, Babe, in Bemidji, Minn. as prime examples.

The best public art, he says, “wants to take risks, wants to stir up controversy. But how many elected officials want to get on board with that?” He came at the behest of the Public Art Endowment of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, the Downtown Greenway, the Weatherspoon Art Museum and Elsewhere Artists Collaborative to discuss Greensboro’s initiatives in the milieu of public art with this talk on Friday and another scheduled the next day at the Weatherspoon.

He noted that the city has made strides since he last visited, with new works downtown and in public parks and greenways, and more pieces planned for the Downtown Greenway, and applauded our progress.

“There isn’t one area of the community that public art can’t touch,” he said.

Becker pointed to a parking garage in his home city of Minneapolis- St. Paul, Minn, owned by the city and sold to a private concern with a beautification clause in the contract. The new owners had planned to apply a new coat of paint to the stricture to satisfy the requirement.

“I said, ‘Doesn’t that paint come in a lot of colors?’” Becker remembered. The resulting multicolored parking garage has become a downtown landmark, he said.

The Twin Cities have undertaken several more ambitious projects, like photo installations on skyways, temporary installations in empty storefronts — which, he says, “actually rent better” than undecorated properties — and bridges and overpasses with frescoes and relief sculpture.

“The hardest part is not making the art,” he said. “It’s getting permission.”

Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Ed Wolverton brought up the issue of tension between the artist’s vision and property owners who might not share that vision, citing recent examples of conflict over art on the greenway — a set of benches near West Lee Street that neighbors complained facilitated public drunkenness and lewd behavior. Though none of these activities were documented, the city council had the benches removed.

“Public art is a negotiated art form,” Becker said. “It’s not just what the artist wants to put up in public. [You need to] facilitate those dialogues, manage expectations and encourage collaboration…. Artists — they don’t learn in art school how to negotiate with a community group.”