Public art: in the eye of the beholder!

"River Sculpture" by Alison Sky

“River Sculpture” by Alison Sky

Every community shows its true nature through its commitment to art in public spaces. Whether one defines art as a fountain in the park or that abstract form located in front of City Hall, the role of art in public space, if nothing else, engenders conversation ( at the very least) and feedback. Back in April Tim Woodward jumped into the fray around the issue of public art with his provocative op-ed titled “Enough public art fiasco’s, thanks!” Mr. Woodward pointed out two pieces specifically, “Northwest Passages” and “River Sculpture”. Woodward noted that both pieces had created significant public outcry and called into question the mental health of the people who selected these pieces of “art”. That article generated significant response – both good and bad. Woodward noted that …in a perverse way, the reaction was flattering as he had never received such intense responses -pro and con- to one of his op-eds.

Stained Glass Entryway

Stained Glass Entryway

So what exactly is the point of my article? I think it comes down to why we have public art in the first place. Boise has well over 100 public pieces of art, some as small as a postcard and barely visible, other like “River Sculpture” large and seen by myriad of people as they traverse downtown Boise on a daily basis. What ties all this together is the commitment by our community to filling space with things that challenge, amuse, and sometimes amaze.

Traffic Box Art

Traffic Box Art

I used to live in Denver, Colorado and I still remember my first trip to the Denver International Airport. What an amazing space committed to public art. Murals, inset tiles, cactus gardens, light and sound tunnels, they were all represented in a variety of settings throughout that mammoth venue. While I can honestly say that not every piece worked for me – when you take it in its totality – it works.

In Boise – it works! I have walked up and down many of the streets and venues that Mr. Woodward talked about. I have seen many of the art installations that make up the artistic vision of this community. While I can certainly state emphatically that I don’t always “get” what a piece is saying and I don’t always find inspiration in its presentation – what I do feel is a sense of pride that we live in a community that values the personal inspiration it takes to create.

Painted Pipes making a statement.

Painted Pipes making a statement.

So whether you call it “River Sculpture” or the “Steaming Crack” lets maintain our commitment to art in public spaces. Let us continue to value what art brings to a community – a healthy respect for diversity and discourse.  After all – it is in the eye of the beholder!

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2 thoughts on “Public art: in the eye of the beholder!

  1. As a (sometimes) professional artist, and having been “short-listed” for public art projects in Boise, I have a slightly different take on Public Art and the underlying Percent For Art funding program. In a town like Boise, with a well-established public art museum (with its own acquisitions budget and ability to bring in traveling exhibitions from artist throughout the region, nation, and world) it makes very little sense to cast a wide net during the artist selection process for Percent For Art-funded projects. I would go further and suggest that for all such efforts (where public funds, including those contributed by CCDC, are mingled with private donations), the pool of potential artists from which the City can consider granting commissions should be restricted to just those artists living within the city limits of Boise (or those who already have an established production/design studio in the city). This makes financial sense (since the money to purchase/commission the art is coming from Boise tax payers), it also makes aesthetic sense (since the least loved public artwork — River Sculpture and Northwest Passages being just two examples — also happen to be works designed and executed by artists who had no connection to the Boise area). If the Artist Selection panel (or the Arts & History Board) have concerns about any presupposed lack of quality (or production experience) of local artists, then the small portion of the Art & History Department budget given over to artist stewardship can be expanded — even legitimately so from the Percent For Art funds. The purpose of having a Public Art program is always two-fold: to increase the viewing & experiential pleasure of the general public (i.e., to beautify the public realm) AND to support the community’s art capacity (both appreciation and production). The Department of Art & History has done a fairly good job on the former count (give them a B-, since there have been some problems), but on the latter count they’ve done poorly (give them a C-/D+). Until the City understands that it has a deeper obligation to its citizens (artist and non-artists), the critics like Woodard will always have traction.

    • Dean:

      Thanks for your comments and your perspective. I would agree that it is important that selected artists represent the values of the community they are speaking to through their art…so the closer they are to the community the more salient the vision. On the other hand it never hurts to have pieces that create tension – even dissonance – since that too is an artistic statement.

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