Picasso, move over - public loves corn on the curb

Fiberglass flora and fauna on display in US cities are a civic leader's dream, but others jeer it as McArt.

When it comes to public art, it's a zoo out there.

Fiberglass pigs, rabbits, and buffalo are stampeding across urban landscapes, greeting gawking travelers and perking up inner cities.

The sheer number of projects - from fish in New Orleans and Boston to Corn on the Curb in Bloomington, Ill., - is unprecedented. Indeed, more and more cities are turning from so-called "plop pieces" - like massive, city-funded plaza sculptures - to breezy, corporate-funded works that lure tourists.

Yet all the colorful animals and vegetables and cartoon characters are raising questions on the nature of public art, with critics branding the new works as kitsch that avoids controversy. Still, the works are drawing more praise than censure, and the trend continues to grow.

"The nature of the pieces has changed because the sources of funding have changed," says Betsy Fahlman, a professor of art history at Arizona State University. "And the vision has changed - people want something more integrated into the community."

Inspired by an exhibit in Switzerland, Chicago was the first US city to try the idea with 300 fiberglass cows last year, reportedly generating $200 million. Since then, Grand Rapids, Mich., has added rabbits; St. Paul, Minn., has erected Snoopies in honor of native Charles Schulz; and Buffalo, N.Y. displays bison.

The concept is a civic leader's dream, even lending itself to a simple formula. First, select an object that represents the city. Next, collect corporate sponsors to pay for the works. Then, select local artists hungry for recognition. Last, place the pieces strategically around the city to lure visitors beyond the beaten track.

All of this tends to unite sometimes disparate community elements, and when it's all over, the art can be auctioned off, with proceeds going to local charities.

Civic self-interest has always been a part of public art, which is generally viewed as having come into its own in the late 1960s, when American cities were in the grip of riots and urban blight and flight. Public art was viewed as one element of cities' salvation. The movement flowered in the '70s and '80s, mostly on the strength of laws requiring 1 percent of the cost of public buildings to be spent on art. Now, there are 250 to 300 "percent" programs nationwide. In the past decade or so, 1 percent has become merely the starting point, as cities team up with corporate sponsors and others to more broadly fund public art.

Most public-art experts take a pragmatic view of this commercialism.

"Public art can help bring exposure to a community, help address a need, or raise awareness about issues like the environment," says Jack Becker, publisher of Public Art Review in St. Paul. "It isn't all about itself. That's a huge new direction for public art."

But others say that many of these new pieces are formulaic McArt that allows civic leaders to avoid making tough decisions. The approval process for putting an exhibit on the street requires review by community boards and selection panels, meaning only the most agreeable art gets the nod.

Even Mr. Becker adds that buffaloes and Snoopies don't really help advance artists' careers. "There is something of a misperception out there that all these public-art programs are helping the artist," he says. "I would say 90 percent of the public art that happens right now is not because this is what the artists want to do; it's what people want artists to do.... It's mostly work for hire."

Others counter that the public has a right to influence what is exhibited on city streets. "It's appropriate that people outside the art community have a say in public art," says Tom Finkelpearl, program director of PS 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York. "And that's not about safe or unsafe. It's about the fact that it's in public."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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