When Everybody's a Critic: Raising a Ruckus Over Public Art

While cities are spending more than ever on public art, residents have strong ideas about how their money should be spent

In the Supreme Court room of the new Utah state courthouse, hangs a two-story expressionistic interpretation of conflict resolution.

At least the artist got the conflict part right.

Since Doug Snow, a respected Utah artist, began nailing his piece to the walls this year, there has been nothing but acrimony surrounding it. The $80,000 painting has been called everything from a giant, steaming hamburger to a disfigured body part.

"This art, at best, has an element of controversy," says Bonnie Stephens of the Utah Arts Council, which commissioned the work. "It was a painful process for the artist and for me - and that was a good thing."

In other words, Ms. Stephens says, public art has once again done just what it's supposed to: provoke dialogue. But in many cities from Dallas to Denver that dialogue is becoming particularly rancorous.

Citizens are not only asking the age-old question,"Is this art?" Frequently, they are also telling local officials that they would rather have their money spent on other projects.

And as states spend more on public art than ever before, the direction the battle takes could play a part in determining how city parks and monuments look in the future.

The look of public art today has already been greatly influenced by several inflammatory disputes during the 1980s. For instance, New Yorkers were aghast in 1981 when sculptor Richard Serra ran a piece of metal 80 feet through a federal plaza. The minimalist piece was removed eight years later amid outcries from citizens who thought it was unsafe and encroached on their space.

Despite such problems, state appropriations for art have increased 12.3 percent from last year to record levels. The money, however, has strings attached. The problems of the 1980s have led to greater scrutiny of the arts this decade, and some say this scrutiny has hurt the quality of the work being done.

"Everyone's covering their bases by having as many public agents on juries as possible, and not enough professionals to choose something worthwhile," says Colorado artist Nancy Lovendahl, speaking of her home state. "Everybody's afraid to take any risks."

And when risks are taken, the product is often the subject of great dispute.

IN April, Ms. Lovendahl completed a project for Cuernavaca Park in Denver - four circular sites spread across the park with rock arrangements inside, symbolizing earth, air, fire, and water. Citizens were so incensed that officials are waiting for public furor to die down before dedicating the park.

"What the people really wanted was a soccer field with lights and bleachers," she says.

Indeed, another one of Lovendahl's pieces - in Dallas - was decried for basically the same reason: The citizens initially wanted something more practical. In that case, they wanted more bathrooms at light-rail stations instead of Lovendahl's "sculptural seating."

Other times, though, the problems center on the look of the art itself.

In the Utah courthouse, three of the five Supreme Court justices have denounced the mural as inappropriate and, in a grudging compromise with the artist, are pushing for draperies to cover it while court is in session.

And this isn't the first problem the Utah Arts Council has had. Five years ago, a Utah Valley Community College administrator ordered grounds crews to take blow torches to a metal sculpture on the Provo campus. He said that Richard Johnston's "Untitled - Horse Form," was rusting after five years on the school's main plaza, and besides, it looked like "a swing set with a lot of whirly things on top."

In fact, that statue prompted a failed attempt to repeal the state's Percent for Art law. (States commonly set aside 1 percent of a public project's construction cost to commission artwork for it.) A 1984 dispute in Tacoma, Wash., led to the city repealing its 1 percent law, but citizens eventually agreed to keep a $280,000 neon sculpture in the Tacoma Dome.

Still, supporters of public art remain unshaken. Such projects give the public a chance to experience art and personally interpret it, says Stephens. "The message is that you do get to hate art," she says. "It's OK."

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