In Plain Site | News

When Contradictions Accumulate: Public Art Becomes Public

This Is The Place Monument by Mahonri Young is about as popular as public art gets in Utah. It’s big. It’s multi-cultural (kind of, counting Catholic priests from Spain and Native Americans). It’s Brigham Young. And visitors can tell what it is just by looking at it. It’s a straightforward figurative commemoration of important events in Utah’s pre-state history, primarily the entry of Mormon pioneers at the mouth of Emigration Canyon and into the Great Basin Kingdom on July 24, 1847.

Forgotten are the politics, money, controversy, and conflict that surrounded the monument’s development during the 1940s. “If past public projects now seem pacific and universally accepted, it is only because their initial conflicts have been eclipsed or repressed,” writes Maureen Sherlock in Sculpture magazine.

Events leading up to Young’s commission were politically charged. His chief competitor was Avard Fairbanks, a proficient local artist who was about as well-connected in the Utah cultural and religious scene as Mahonri Young, Brigham Young’s grandson.

Contracts were slow to materialize and payments for completed work were even slower. Delays were caused by a lawsuit involving a contractor. Even oversight committee members interjected opinions into the artist’s domain, further slowing progress due to negotiations in the subjective sphere. For example, some committee members objected to Young’s model that positioned a seagull in the lower background of the three central figures in order to provide compositional balance. Seagulls, they insisted in literal-minded debate, don’t fly that far into Emigration Canyon. “Public art,” observes Sherlock, “has always been compromised by the private interests of its funders (state or corporate) . . . in a highly contested social terrain.”

Mahonri Young lived during the same time, in the same places, and showed work in the same exhibits as many of the major artists of the early 20th Century, such as Pablo Picasso for whom he held little esteem. He was even entertained by Gertrude Stein—an oil-and-water encounter. Young’s commissioned monuments, however, were directed by a sensibility toward conservative 19th century notions of public art.

“Before the modern period,” writes Barbara Hoffman, attorney for an arts association, “most public art commissions . . . could be labeled ‘public’ in the sense that they served commemorative or functional purposes broadening the appeal of public policies and institutions. Art had a role in focusing, interpreting, and reinforcing accepted social, national and civic values through comprehensible forms and symbols” (quoted in Maureen Sherlock’s article referenced above).

New commissions of public art projects that serve “commemorative or functional purposes” are rare in Utah. Recent works of this type can be seen in and around the Utah State Capitol Building. Such interior works are surrounded by lofty cyclorama murals nested in its impressive Rotunda. Outside, sculptures stand upright in the mountainous Utah landscape against the backdrop of the stately, restored and earthquake retrofitted Capitol Building and its contemporary, less formidable but quite functional out-building progeny. Some fairly new sculptures represent individual contributors to Utah’s history: Philo T. Farnsworth, Martha Hughes Cannon, and Brigham Young. Four recent allegorical niche statues in the Rotunda, surprisingly lackluster and dated for contemporary work, represent “Land and Community,” “Science and Technology,” “Art and Technology,” and “Emigration and Settlement.” All are representational bronzes presented in an accessible style, just the way some critics of tax-supported contemporary work think public art should be, if it should even exist at all.

Much of Utah’s contemporary public art uses up-to-date technologies, materials, and techniques. Some provide abstract and conceptual interpretations of events specific to the site they occupy. They are not always easy “to get” and, understandably, some people resist them. (And, just because they’re considered “contemporary” doesn’t make them all winners, either.)

Perhaps the best example in recent memory of such resistance was when, in 1997, Gilbert Cook, then vice president of public relations (of all things) at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), a self-appointed art expert, destroyed one such piece.

The two states of Richard Johnston’s Untitled: Horse Form

Seekers of Excellence, by James T. Russell, 1998

Richard Johnston’s brightly painted welded steel abstract sculpture, “Untitled: Horse Form,” was reduced to scrap metal during the cloak of a Thanksgiving break. Cook didn’t like the sculpture or its location, so he had it removed and eviscerated by blowtorch. Enjoying apparent impunity for his vandalous act upon state-owned property, Cook reportedly spent time lobbying state legislators to eliminate the Public Arts Program that funded the piece he found offensive. He reportedly had a business card printed with his name as “Gilbert ‘Blowtorch’ Cook.” As a result of Cook’s action, Johnston’s welded steel stallion became one of Utah’s most notorious historical markers for “taste censorship.” After about five years of legal and political haggling, Johnston “restored” the piece in 2001, but painted it black. Cook, however, got part of his desires fulfilled in that it now stands in a different location on campus.

Administrators at the Davis Applied Technology College took a different approach to an abstract sculpture installed on their campus in 1992. The Technical Center now has a signature sculpture by which they are known through Utah. Instead of blasting James T. Russell’s abstract fifteen-foot high polished stainless steel sculpture with a blowtorch, Davis administrators applauded it.

“Russell’s piece is so successful,” said Jim Glenn, coordinator of the Utah Arts Council’s Public Art Program, “that the school adopted it as their logo—not only the image, but also the title of the work, ‘Seekers of Excellence’. It was reproduced on their letterhead, room signage, and name tags. This is an example of where public art is taken to heart by the community. It has offered the school more than a sculpture in front of a building. It gave it an identity.” Brent Peterson, former director of the school’s support services, agreed. “We have one of the finest pieces of public art anywhere.”

There was no such love fest among the Supreme Court Justices at the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City when the late V. Douglas Snow’s large mural, “Capitol Reef,” was unveiled in 1997. Even though experts from state government, an architect, one of the chief judges, and community representatives approved the artist and work following legislatively mandated protocol, the justices attacked the mural on aesthetic grounds and appropriateness.

Snow’s abstract work should not have been a surprise—his bold murals are familiar to patrons of the old downtown Salt Lake Library (now The Leonardo). Another expressive piece, now in the State Archives Building adjacent to the Rio Grande Depot, was originally commissioned to grace the lobby of the University of Utah’s Pioneer Memorial Theater; itself a mystery as to why such a strong, masterful work was removed in the first place—another victim of “taste censorship?” It was subsequently hung in a highly-trafficked stairwell of the university’s Student Union Building before transferred into the Utah Arts Council’s public art collection for its own protection. It landed in the Archive’s lobby because legislator opponents of the percent-for-art program succeeded in cutting art funding for the building, citing budget concerns. (As executive director of the Utah Arts Council at the time, I felt it absurd not to have major artwork in a state-of-the-art archive facility and negotiated at the encouragement of Union Building management to have Snow’s mural brought at no purchase cost into the state collection, then had it restored and permanently installed.)

Bonnie Stephens, former executive director of the Utah Arts Council, believed the criticism of Snow’s court house mural would subside. “In time,” she said, “the piece will prove to be one of Utah’s best” examples of public art. “The public overwhelmingly supported the selection of the piece.” After almost fifteen years, Stephens’ bet on the future acceptance of the mural has yet to be a winner—steam still rises from the black robes of some justices when they see the cloud-like vapors that emanate from the red rocks in Snow’s painting. In fact, the justices spent a reportedly $26,000 of public money for a curtain to cover the $80,000 painting when court is in session.

Artists who enter the competitive arena of publicly funded art leave the cloistered studio behind, where art making is typically a solo venture. “The public artist,” Sherlock observes, “is in contact with multiple classes, from the blue collar workers engaged by the artist in the production process to a white-collar cast of characters from CEOs to card-carrying ‘community-based’ bureaucrats.”

Painter Allen Bishop, who now teaches at Crowder College in Missouri, has had several public commissions over the years, including three for the Utah Arts Council installed in Logan, Salt Lake City, and Cedar City.

Energies, by Allen Bishop, 1996

“My first piece was for the Utah Arts Festival,” he recalled. “I look at them as a kind of collaboration.” His artistic integrity, he said, is controlled at the front end of a project. He first examines the prospectus—a written description of the project’s intentions prepared by the sponsoring organization. “If the prospectus doesn’t fit my philosophical, stylistic, technical, or moral concerns, then I simply don’t submit a proposal. If I feel I can work within the restrictions imposed by project requirements, and it’s interesting to me, I’ll go for it.”

Bishop then develops a concept based on the prospectus and the site. For example, “Probe,” a large vertical painting for the Southern Utah University Science Center, was based on five scales of scientific investigation. The completed work includes five panels that represent each type of inquiry in descending order, from the submicroscopic to the cosmic level. “The projects that have come my way have been conceptual and lend themselves to my non-objective approach to painting,” he said. “Their outcome shows part of my attempt to be a little more democratic and not to delegate to myself total control over the whole aesthetic experience. In reality of course, that can never happen anyway.”

For almost 25 years, city, county, and state public art programs have placed paintings, sculptures, and other works in and near tax-supported facilities and open spaces. Typically, one percent of capital expenditures for new or refurbished buildings or public works are allocated for the commission of art. Such art work is found on university and college campuses, in government office buildings, and in places like the Salt Lake International Airport, Salt Palace, and Abravenal Hall. Salt Lake City Arts Council and Salt Lake County both have sound public arts programs. The Utah Arts Council has placed almost 150 works around the state since its Public Arts Program was mandated by the 1985 Legislature.

A basic assumption about public art of the past few decades is that those affected by the work should be represented in the decision-making process that enables it. This democratization of art has affected the way in which participating artists do their work. The artist becomes a community participant—changed from an isolated studio worker into a cultural worker. The artist and community together enter the territory of politics, money, controversy, and conflict to achieve a common goal.

Some opponents of public art programs say tax funds should be diverted to more “worthwhile” proposes. Others believe funds for public art should be awarded to local arts organizations to determine how best to spend the money. Questions are often raised about the aesthetic quality of public art. Who should determine its success? Should such assessments be made by professionals, local citizens, or community leaders? Community standards and “appropriateness” are common issues related to public art and censorship. Should public art, therefore, be beautiful, decorative, and non-threatening at the expense of social, historical, and demographic relevance? How can the interests of government and corporate funders and citizens be represented and still maintain standards of aesthetic integrity required by the artist? And, the inevitable question: what is the role of the artist in contemporary society?

Public art in the future will be shaped by the way these issues are addressed. Blowtorches can be used to make or destroy public art. The same vehemence surrounds public policy and discourse. As Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space, “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.”

Stephens agreed when she said, “art is, after all is said and done, subjective.” We all have opinions about art and the contradictions will continue to accumulate—fertile ground for making art and a democratic society.

Categories: In Plain Site | News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.