Public Art Controversies

This month in Phoenix, a tempest of controversy almost deflated a work of public art designed to float above a downtown park: a flimsy sculpture, the outcry went, should not cost the city $2.4 million. In an ongoing debate in Baltimore, a sculpture is running up against three of the oldest concerns in real estate history: location, location, location. In Washington, D.C., last summer, it wasn't the art people took exception to; it was the artist. How can a Chinese man be chosen to build a monument to Martin Luther King Jr.?

Ah, public art. The very words conjure committee skirmishes and 12th-hour vetoes. But if you think people are arguing over how these artworks actually look or what they represent, think again. In most cases what puts people in a tizzy is location, funding, durability, safety, effect on property values, traffic patterns and other unsexy logistical issues, says Bob Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit that oversees public arts programs nationwide.

Even in laid-back Southern California public art can get under the well-tanned skin of the coolest communities. San Diego public arts administrators rejected a proposal for a sculpture built from boat scraps in 1999 because residents thought it would be too weird for the proposed location downtown. So the artist, Nancy Rubins, took her work to a museum a few miles away, and it quickly became a hit. "It's been used extensively in articles and travel magazines. It has become a favorite image of the area," says Denise Montgomery, spokeswoman for the Museum of Contemporary Art, in nearby La Jolla. The public is happy; the museum is happy. But Robert Pincus, art critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, is quick to point out why: "Now people don't complain about it. Part of the reason they don't is that it's on museum grounds. Museums can do what they want. But if it was out in public, they'd be outraged."

It could be that after hundreds of years of shocking us, art is finding it harder to make a statement. But Kim Babon, a sociologist of art at Wake Forest University who studied hundreds of people's reactions to sculptures of varying shock value, found that context, not content, pushes our buttons today. "People were concerned with the way art fits in the urban environment," says Babon. What it comes down to is the flow of daily life: does a sculpture in a plaza break your routine by forcing you to take a different route to work? Does it break a city's routine by reducing use of a parking lot or park? And, just as important, does it break your visual habits or associations with a certain space? "There are places people care about that have particular kinds of meaning or uses, and if arts comes in and compromises the uses and meanings associated with those places, people get upset," Babon says.

If history reveals anything, it's that the art often outlives the controversy it spawns. A few years back a senator decried some modern buildings for making his city look "like a harlot," and the architect was jailed. "All kinds of people were writing negative comments about how the city was squandering Athenian money on these grotesque atrocities," Lynch says. Now just try imagining Athens without the Parthenon and the other buildings on the Acropolis.

The same goes for the Eiffel Tower and Pablo Picasso's 1967 Chicago sculpture (which was, interestingly, privately funded). Both works occupy prime spots on public land and were considered modern monstrosities, yet both seem iconic, even staid, by today's standards. Scandal may have propelled them to fame, but over time something else kicked in: people got used to them and eventually grew to love them.

One way to curtail controversy is to make the decision process more collaborative, so the space is used in the way that appeals to the most people, several public arts administrators say. Another trend is integrating public art holistically into the surrounding space. Gone are the days of "plop art," when works were erected by fiat by a select group of connoisseurs, public opinion be damned. Increasingly, public art is designed by architects to meld harmoniously with buildings or planned spaces. Of course, the risk is that the art could veer into the merely decorative. And the worst artistic offense of all, says Pincus, is blandness.

In Phoenix the contested artwork—as yet unnamed—will go up after all. Residents attended a public hearing saying they loved the floating sculpture, which is a fluid, airy concoction of nets shaped like a flower or, some say, a jellyfish. Janet Echelman, the artist, says controversy is a good thing. "It's good for art to make us think, to give us a shared experience that creates a dialogue, makes us talk to each other, including strangers." So whether they call it hideous or diaphanous, a jellyfish or a uterus, at least there'll be something to whisper about. The stranger the better?