One Percent for Art: A penny for the old guy?

In his studio on a tree-lined back street in Cambridge, Lowry Burgess thinks about art, the moon, and South Boston's Castle Island. Art, because he is a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and an environmental artist.

The moon, because it figures prominently in the personal cosmology underlying his work.

And Castle Island, because a shoring up of the sea wall around Fort Independence -- the oldest continously fortified area in the United States -- is the first of 13 projects scheduled for the "One Percent for Art" program recently initiated by the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC).

Mr. Burgess has been chosen as the artist for that maiden project. To him goes 1 percent of the $1 million needed for reconstruction -- actually about $15 ,000, because of accounting adjustments. From him comes something officially described as "artwork appropriate for the area."

What is appropriate? Mr. Burgess has thought a lot about that question. He knows the constraints of placing art in public places -- and in some that are not so public. His involvements, in fact, take him into unusual environments. He once arranged ice blocks on the frozen Charles River. Farther afield, he created what he calls "the inclined galactic light pond" by burying holographic plates of waterlilies and stars in six pits in Bimiyan, Afghanistan. He then placed an object on the bottom of the Pacific off Easter Island, directly opposite Bimiyan along a "quiet axis" through the earth's core.

In the meantime, however, he ponders the possibilities for the less exotic reaches of South Boston. "I want to create a work that is not just a thing," says Lowry Burgess in his sparely furnished kitchen, "but which has an aura, which can grow and exist and change in time."

His work will meet at least three challenges from the site itself: the fort, the weather, and vandalism. The vast Georgian-style fort, dating from the 1840s , is, he says, an "entirely overwhelming" backdrop for a work of public art. The weather -- searing and freezing in turn, and rinsing the site with corresive salt air -- rules out any but the most enduring of substances. And there are the hackers and spray-painters. Art, he says diplomatically, "tends to be a focus for people's otherwise unfocuses frustrations."

The focus of his own plan, yet to be shared with the committee, may stir up the further challenge of community antagonism. He envisions a giant water droplet, 8 or 9 feet in diameter, carved out of granite. Made in two halves, the irregularly shaped drop will be hollow. inside will be a vacuum. In the vacuum will be an object made of all the earth's elements, which he will fabricate on the floor of the Dead Sea. Why the Dead Sea? "Think about it," Mr. Burgess says.

And that is just what he wants his public to do. The question is, Wiil they? Is his conception yet another example of the Dadaist prerogative of epater le bourgeoism -- a phrase that another Cambridgeite, e. e. cummings, once loosely rendered as "to flabbergast the Rotarians"? Or is it an earnest effort to stretch art beyond the statues-in-the-public-garden variety?

Whatever the final judgement, Mr. Burgess may be able to play to several constituencies. If his droplet has its own beauty of line and mass, its outside may delight the uninquiring. Those who think art must contain some hidden universal essence will also be satisfied -- literally. As for those who think art should "put Boston on the map" -- will they take comfort in coordinates that include the cliffs of the Buddhas, a South Pacific island, and the as-yet-uncultured moon?

Such projects, in South Boston and elsewhere, will no doubt evoke such responses as, "One percent for that?"m Public art always runs that risk, especially when it uses money otherwise pegged for construction. Sensing the pratfalls, the MDC has engaged a nonprofit group called the Artists Foundation to administer the projects. The foundation, project coordinator Deborah Black says, sets up selection committees, sifts applicants, and administers funds -- doing a lot more, she says, than "simply placing an object made in the studio out in public."

Fortunately, there are other 1-percent-for-art programs to look to as models. They are now established by law in 20 states and a number of cities. Philadelphia has one of the oldest, Seattle one of the best. The MDC's program is the first to be administered in Massachusetts by a state agency, though as of July 1 the Commonwealth itself will have a percent-for-art statute on the books.

Cambridge had the first in Massachusetts, which began in 1979 and is now embarking on its first project -- an inexpensive exterior renovation of Longfellow School, releasing $900 for art.

How does the community respond? The Cambridge Arts Council involves it from the start on selection panels. "There is no such thing as a conservative neighborhood," asserts council administrator Chris Connaire.

The local granddaddy of the programs appears to be the Arts on the Line program run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). That, too , is administered by the Cambridge Arts Council. The arts budget for the new extension on the subway system's Red Line now under construction actually figures out to only a half of 1 percent. But with a total construction budget of $620 million, that puts $3.1 million into art -- a substantial sum, though little enough, some say, given the visual dreariness of the "T."

The line already has some art, notably the mosaic mural by Lilli Ann Rosenberg at the Park Street subway station. More is scheduled for the Park Street and the Washington Street stations and elsewhere. But the major effort involves the 20 artists commissioned by the MBTA for the extension. they will create, among other things, an outdoor sculpture in Harvard Square, a brick gateway at Brattle Street, and a ceramic mural at Davis Street designed by an artist who worked with neighborhood schoolchildren and incorporated their tiles into the work.

Boston is not big on murals, although there is the big one, the dome-and-skyscape, painted on the east side of the Boston Architectural Center in the Back Bay. But public art need not be grand in scale. Nor need it use public funds.

On the corner of Clearway and Dalton Streets, in a former parking lot owned by the Church of Christ, Scientist, artist Holly Amans-Kaiser climbed down from her scaffolding the other day to describe the design of great green leaves, white blossoms, and orange teardrop shapes spread across a four-story wall.

In front of it is a brick terrace, set about with benches and low concrete walls. The walls support planters, bringing painted foliage into conjunction with the real thing. Unlike most murals, this botanical design has no particular social message. The project was, however, no small challenge to the designers, who had to work with a vest-pocket site and compose what she describes as "a canvas that can be used for all seasons."

What do these examples have in common? First, they bring art out of the gallery and put it where it belongs -- in public. Second, they do so with reasonably little expense. And they do it a more stable, and surely more conscionable, way than the ailing arts lottery enacted in Massachusetts last year has been able to do.

Third, they give a whiff of encouragement to those who find American support for the arts woefully lacking -- and anticipate even less if the National Endowment for the Arts takes, as expected, its 50 percent budget cut.

But most significantly, the 1-percent program stands as a sobering metaphor for our own individual responses. How many of us spend 1 percent on art? One percent of the $36 billion in personal income earned each year by Greater Boston residents is $360 million. That would buy a lot of art.

But the greatest contribution we can make is a commitment of our most valuable asset -- our attention. Arts money can help us express our best sense of ourselves. Or it can bring out the merely personal whims of those calling themselves artists. The choice is ours. As public viewers, and voters, we can tilt the scales toward excellence by cultivating our tastes, forming thoughtful opinions, and sharing our ideas with the planners.

That, of course, takes time. But 1 percent of our time comes to 1.68 hours a week. Compared with the time the nation spends in television-watching, that's a ver y small, and very significant, investment.

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