I Heart Public Art
Friday, July 6, 2012 at 3:47PM
dan webb


I public art


I love public art. This puts me at odds with pretty much everyone I know in the gallery world, for whom public art represents everything they either despise or fear: lack of control, compromise, having to dumb everything down, uncomprehending audiences. But I myself happily move between both worlds, doing public commissions and gallery shows, feeling equally content with each. I will admit that it’s a surprising turn of events for me, partly due to the fact that my own entrance into public art was somewhat late and improbable, but also partly due to the fact that being there has made some things clear about the gallery world that I couldn’t quite put my finger on before. Public art emerged as an escape hatch out of a place that I didn’t think needed escaping from, allowing me to understand that it’s easier to see where you live when you cross the street once in awhile. Even from the short distance I now have it’s easy to see that all of the criticisms of public art turn out to have either a corollary, or an equally egregious opposite in the gallery world that go unnoticed or ignored by most artists, such as having too much control, an inability to compromise, and frequently garbled, and unquestioned, intellectual flights of fancy. It’s barely worth mentioning that both sides have the uncomprehending audiences in common. Two sides of the same coin it would appear, and while both worlds have their problems, (no use sugar coating a turd here), I’ve come to realize that leaving each of them from time to time makes it a lot easier to jump back in with both feet.

Full disclosure: public art in the last several decades mostly sucks. The visual tics of breaching salmon, or utterly anonymous (but friendly!) non-objective forms are absolutely and legitimately mock- able, and most people rarely pass up the opportunity to do just that. But in truth gallery shows are more often misses than hits as well, despite the freedom that artists have to make or say whatever they want, and the confidence they derive from addressing a self-selecting and sympathetic audience. The stark success to failure ratio of most art projects, be it in a gallery or a public park, tells a simple truth; making something good turns out to be just plain tough, and making something great turns out to be just plain unlikely. Art is hard. Still, good and even great things are being made now, in both the public and private realms, with a frequency that defies the odds. And that’s good. But less good is the way that public art lags in some ways, due in no small part to the commonly held view that public art is still the lesser of the two avenues for an artist to pursue. This view discourages many gallery artists from participating in public art projects almost out of reflex, rather than out of informed scrutiny. But a little scrutiny might be a good thing, because as I found out, learning about the public art world has a way of illuminating the gallery world as well, a fringe benefit that turned my conventional view of things upside down. 

First, some context. It’s key to remember that public art as we know it is a thing still being born.  In the wake of High Modernism ‘Public Art’ slowly atrophied, to the point that what we are seeing now is an almost total re-invention of a practice that has for many decades been de-coupled from architecture. The term itself, ‘Public Art’ is a relatively new invention, and would probably be meaningless to the architects of Rockefeller Center in New York say, who seamlessly integrated sculpture, bas relief, and murals into brilliant architecture, or to someone like Gustav Vigeland, the author of 212 sculptures in an 80 acre park in Oslo that wonderfully integrates art into landscape. ‘Public Art’ even in the 30’s and 40’s was still thought of as being an integral part of architecture, or of landscape, and not something separate from it. The blurred lines between the two disciplines hardened and separated somewhere in the not too distant past, and it is unclear if we have figured out a way to put them back together yet.

Part of it was just bad timing. As the 70’s loomed, and modernism was running out of gas, artists were moving away from making objects anyway. Modernist architects were never big on ‘decoration’ to begin with, so the resulting drift between architects making unadorned boxes, and scruffy hippies pushing around dirt in the desert is an easy one to predict. The result was a loss of at least a couple generations of artists and architects who could really talk to each other. Art schools responded to the new shift in thinking by becoming more intellectual affairs than in the past (at least according to their defenders), and vastly pared down the teaching of technical skills, their reason for being up until that point, in favor of seminar classes in art history and theory. The result is that today there is very little training for people who are interested in making public work, (other than a new program at the UW!) and certainly very little training in project management, budgeting, or even of broad visual literacy inclusive of architecture in art school. The difficulties of such a situation are self evident for those making public work, and the only solution we seem to have come up with so far is simply on the job training, which sometimes works, and sometimes not. Be that as it may, starting in the late 50’s in Philadelphia, the 1% for art program was launched, an idea that has slowly, very slowly, (and not universally) spread around the country. Now public art is often a legal mandate, and artists and architects are partners again in a relationship that can resemble an arranged marriage more than simply two great flavors that taste great together. The result of this arrangement has been to create a style with the unfortunate moniker ‘Plop Art’, which despite its unfortunate image, accurately describes how a piece of art ends up in front of a building. It’s the last thing there, and the architects for the most part have had no input, or interest, in integrating it into a context larger than a predetermined concrete pad.     

It doesn’t take a very long look at the history of either art or architecture to notice that this estrangement between artists and architects is new. It needs be said that most art in the Western cannon is public art. That is, made for the church or state in some capacity. And it also needs to be said that the line between what made one an artist, and what made one an architect where very fluid, which is why Michelangelo, Bernini, and Brunelleschi (who trained as a goldsmith), were able to take on massive architectural projects. That began to change with the influence of the Dutch, the same people that brought us the tulip craze. In the 17th century they created what was to become the gallery system as we understand it today, a system that led art away from a mostly public endeavor to one that was (and is) mostly private. And while we eventually figured out that making tulip bulbs worth astronomical sums was nothing more than a bizarre fetish, it remains unclear why we have done something quite similar with visual art.

The Dutch system relied on the merchant class, people of some wealth, who were looking for a way of buying up the cultural ladder. The same of course holds true today. The idea of art having a more general audience regardless of class is even newer; that happened after the French Revolution, when the Louvre was opened as a gallery for a general audience. The idea of a public art institution was born then and quickly gained wide acceptance.  But the buying and selling of art, the disseminating of paintings and sculptures, was already set; it was designed as a top down enterprise, with the wealthy buying it and supporting it, and so it remains unchanged today.

There is a problem however with a top down method of cultural support, and it is a big one: it never works. Culture is a thing that happens from the bottom and moves up. Never is the process reversed, though the Dutch gallery system that we have inherited has taken a stab at doing just that for the past three hundred years. When a top down process is brought to bear on an art form, the results are usually to tame an unruly thing, and domesticate it. Take two short examples; jazz and opera. Jazz was once the most popular musical form in America, an exotic, primal, even dangerous music that drove people wild on the dance floor. Now it is a degree program in music school, and it’s most common provenance tends to be cruise ships and hotel lobbies, where it mostly minds its manners and stays out of the way. Opera also ruled supreme at one time as the most popular art form of its day. And why not? It mixed outrageous spectacle with paper-thin boy-meets-girl stories, and cranked up the volume to eleven. It has been rightly said that all of popular music has used this template, but what gets forgotten is that opera itself borrowed its winning formula from folk songs, and folk stories, adding complexity and bombast to gain more of an audience. Now of course, opera is identified with the upper crust of society, and viewed with outright suspicion by those of the middle and lower classes, who of course are an overwhelming majority of the people. If the current music world were to be thought of as a tree, jazz and opera would be small dry twigs far from sunlight. Their top-down incarnations are the shriveled and less vibrant versions of their bottom up origins. The examples I could name are not just relegated to music, they are in virtually any genre; dance, fashion, design, all are fed from a bottom up system. It is quite a bit more challenging to find vibrant parts of the culture that began at the top and moved downward.

This top-down bottom-up observation raises a couple of commonly held views about visual art. The first being simply this: so what? Art is elitist anyway. I hear this from all sorts of people in all sorts of different contexts. But the answer is a simple and unequivocal no. Art exists in every culture for a reason: it helps people to digest the experiences of their lives, it strings together generations by reminding them of the past, it acts as the connective tissue between people who are misanthropic by nature. I have seen the effects of this in action. When I was young I lived in an Eskimo village on an island in the Bering Sea. When the men would come back from hunting, they would sit with their families and tell stories, or carve ivory, or drum while the women would sing and dance together. They would make art, essentially, and transfer their shared identity to their children in the process. The need to do this wasn’t a sign of highbrow tastes or any other kind of brow for that matter. It seemed to speak more to the fact that reflective beings, who can understand the concept of the past and the future, and who can picture their own demise, need to make some semblance of sense out of all of this stuff we go through. No one is going to solve any of it of course, but no one is let off the hook ignoring it either, and art in its many forms is part of that investigation.

The second question raised by the top-down approach of the gallery system is that it hasn’t exactly killed art off. In fact there is an argument that it is more vibrant than ever, with a booming gallery scene, lots and lots of artists, record auction prices, etc. All true. But part of that is simply due to the fact that what is really booming is the creation of extremely wealthy people, not only here in the U.S. but also in places like Russia, India, Brazil, Mexico, and other corners of the world that had up until recently hadn’t had many. But a top down model means that the money is spent by relatively few people, and ends up in relatively few hands. Most artists, a staggering 95% if the statistics can be believed, stop making art five years after leaving school, mainly due to being really really broke, and realizing how completely un-romantic it is. And despite the fact that Seattle is a pretty good art town relative to its size, there are perhaps 10 or so collectors here, maybe less, who regularly buy the work of local artists from local galleries, making it clear that a very small group of people get to be the arbiters of what becomes visual culture.

Making those choices has become more and more challenging as the number of artists has mushroomed exponentially all over the world, straining to the point of incredulity the idea of a few key collectors and curators consistently making the right choices about what is culturally relevant. Thumb through a 10 year old Art Forum, or even a 10-year-old Christie’s catalog and it’s soon made clear that a large number of those artists have disappeared. While it’s true that Kings and Popes made fine choices when they ran things, they did so with a far smaller pool of artists to choose from. Pope Paul V famously gave Bernini a handful of gold coins when he was a boy of eleven to pay for his art education. The buzz was already on him, and the Pope knew about it. I’m not sure that the current Pope, much less a hedge fund manager or a Russian oligarch would know where to begin in getting a sense of the contemporary art world, and I’m not sure anybody else does either. What seems clear is that some semblance of a bottom up system must be employed as a way of vetting the slim number of choices that are being made by collectors, if an accurate reflection of current culture is the is to be the goal. At some point the culture itself must weigh in on whether or not this goal is being achieved, and the system as it exists today simply doesn’t allow that to happen. Galleries do what they can, opening their doors to an overwhelmingly non-paying audience, and showing young and untested artists regularly. Still, the audience that galleries attract is relatively small and self-selecting, and they have little say in what is good, or not good, or why. Galleries don’t provide a ballot box next to the cash register; there is simply a cash register, and the artists who get people to vote with their dollars stand a far better chance of advancing in their careers then those who do not.

Many galleries now don’t ‘sell’ pieces, they ‘place’ them, meaning that they find the best collections with the highest profiles, and make deals with collectors about donating the work to institutions, rather than re-selling it at auction. This system does an end run around any kind of broad agreement on what is good or bad, and can propel artists right into museums and institutions with very little input from an actual audience. Artists who find themselves in this happy circumstance are rarely demoted, because to do so is to affect the sale price of their work, which rises significantly with an institutional seal of approval. The work that these artists make can become highly sought after simply as investments as the prices for contemporary art seems to rise ever higher and higher. Meanwhile, the aforementioned collections of wealthy patrons, that exceedingly small group of people, end up forming a supply line of art to museums unable to afford much of it themselves. And so it is that museums today are not so different now than they were at their birth in 1793, collections gathered and bought by the rich, and looked at with curiosity by a general public removed from the process of how it all got there. 

The capricious abstraction of what supposedly becomes visual culture is hard to track in a museum or gallery setting. The jury is out as to whether or not it even works. Certainly curators have been interested in art made by skateboarders, or ‘outsider artists’, which really means people who haven’t gone to art school, so in a sense even those within the system have their doubts as well. Which brings me back to public art. Which I mentioned that I love. Not because I think it has solved the top down dilemma that gallery art faces, not just because of its clear acknowledgement of art’s utility, not just because of the way it eliminates preaching to the choir by venturing outside of art’s balkanized environs, not just because of the way it allows artists to expand on what they do in terms of scale and materials, and not because it circumvents museums and allows work to be permanently displayed in a public setting. No, even more important then all of this, (though all of the above is immensely important) I love public art because it allows artists to be full-time in the studio, making not only the public work that put them there in the first place, but actually subsidizing the creation of gallery shows as well. It allows artists to be artists.

Artists making art in their studios, it must be understood, is a rare and beautiful event. The realities of money and the nagging necessity to make more of it constantly pull artists away from their studio practice, making most artists part- timers, squeezing what they do in between jobs, or after work. Time equals money, true enough, but for most artists, money equals time, lots and lots of time, a huge chunk of their lives that is devoted to something other than making stuff in their studios. The most obvious solution to this dilemma is simply to make one’s living as an artist, and the most obvious sounding way to go about doing that is to be represented by a gallery. So let’s run a few numbers. In order to make $30,000 a year as an artist showing in a gallery, one must sell a minimum of $75,000 worth of stuff. This figure assumes the industry standard 50/50 split of art sales with a dealer, plus studio rent and expenses, which I list here at a modest $15,000. Subtract some non-negotiable things like taxes, which are alarmingly high for the self-employed, as well as health insurance, tools and materials, fabrication expenses, vehicles, etc, and that $30,000 profit seems like a pretty tall mountain to scale. Remember also that solo shows are rarely less than two years apart in any one town, so doing shows outside of where one lives becomes essential. To those shows held somewhere else, add packing and transportation costs, which most galleries only partially pay for, and assume that there will be damage along the way. And about that gallery out of town, congratulations! Getting a show in your own back yard is difficult, but to get one somewhere else is a far more difficult assignment; doing so lands you into a very slender minority. But be aware that all galleries are not created equal; some are able to sell work more often, and for more money than are others, so it is also essential in this equation to be in one of the better galleries. Oops, I mean in two of those galleries, one in the town that you live in, and then another one in New York or L.A. Most ideal would be to have three galleries, all top shelf of course, in the major art centers, (which are really the major collector centers), and then one where you live. Assuming one is able to get into the right galleries and have some successful shows, the next hurdle to surmount makes the others seem like speed bumps; the constantly changing and fickle art market, which can snuff a career full of steam so fast it seems to defy physics. To paraphrase Robert Henri, art is the best pursuit in the world, and the worst job. So how to solve the realities of paying rent and eating food?

The first public art commission I landed paid me $108,000, which was more money than I had made in my previous 12 years of showing in galleries. In order to get the gig, I had to describe my proposed project to a room full of mostly non-art people, including a building maintenance guy. I had to make sense to the janitor! I stumbled and fumbled, the maintenance guy and a property manager asked the most insightful questions, and I was awarded the commission. This was a mind-blowing, life-changing event. The profit I made allowed me to quit my day job, and concentrate full time on my next show.  The extra time I was able to put into the studio reflected in the work, which is not so surprising. It turns out that spending more time making and ruminating on something results in a better outcome. The work I made quite clearly reflected the extra time and attention, and sold reasonably well as a result. That tided me over until I got my next public art gig, and so on, forming a cycle that has allowed me to cobble together a living out of being a full time artist. My story is not a unique one. There are a handful of local artists who have had a very similar experience, due in no small part to the very forward thinking public arts administers in this town, who know exactly what the benefits of a commission for real money will do to an artist’s life. And the benefits are hard to overstate.

I love the mural of the stars on the ceiling in Grand Central Station. I love the Nebraska state capitol. I love the peacock in the downtown Seattle Library. I love the giant teddy bear in Central Park, the reflecting orb in Millennium Park, the cast tree root in Bellevue. Whether or not public art in its current 1% state has produced a Rockefeller Center yet is a moot point to me. Gallery shows are usually bad too, and I keep going to see them. The Princess who realized she had to kiss a lot of frogs to find the Prince got it right, and when I go see shows I try to remember her example. But it must be said that despite the good things happening in both public art and gallery art, it’s fair to say that moving from one to the other has made me aware that both are calcified, and have a tendency to retreat quite comfortably into bubbles of their own making. I’m not advocating for fusing these two bubbles together, because then you either get one enormous bubble, or worse, three smaller ones. A better solution to me would be for the inhabitants of each to simply step outside every now and then and take a look around.  It would be a far less attractive alternative for artists to stay comfortably ensconced inside their chosen bubbles, where perfectly reasonable things can begin to sound ridiculous, simply because they clash with an unspoken consensus view. Take for example the idea that gallery artists’ art could, and should, involve a general audience; such an idea strikes many artists as just not their job. Sure, somebody like Shakespeare had career goals that meshed a lot more with Stephen King than with James Joyce, and sure Bach wrote music for his local parish church, but those are crazy exceptions. Right? I don’t think so. Things that attain a kind of eternal quality assume, and accept, a wide audience, while most contemporary art does not. It remains fixated on the idea that it critiques the culture, or even defines it, even though most of the culture doesn’t pay it any attention. Robert Motherwell was long ago quoted as saying that art at the end of the 20th century would be a battle between Picasso and Duchamp. Needless to say, Picasso has gotten his ass handed to him in a bag. Conceptual art has become the new orthodoxy, rooted in something that was hard won, and enduring, and has since evolved into something that is now too frequently just facile enough to feel rote. Much like the fate of modernism in another era, whose hard won principals became short cuts to lesser practitioners, many artists today seem quite content to be merely clever, and squirm a bit at the notion that one would ask what the ‘concept’ is in the first place.

Public art is in quite a bubble as well. It is fixated on trying to be art, without the teeth. And I think it is quite possible to include teeth in public art. When Brian Eno was asked his opinion of New Age music, which he is generally credited with inspiring, he said he didn’t like any of it because it lacked a sense of evil. True, that.  When public artists voluntarily dumb things down, erase the evil, they ultimately come across as being condescending. People aren’t stupid; they can usually sense the artist’s lack of trust, or even respect, and the consequences to that are as predictable as they are unattractive. What happens is that frustrated artists make boring art, which both the artist and the public, through a long and intertwined process have had a hand in creating. This of course means that both sides can, and do, legitimately blame the other for the outcome, and along the way confirm their stereotypes of the other. Did I mention that art is hard?

The good news is that art is an unstoppable thing that defies all of the complex barriers we have erected in its path, and the even better news is that we are at a place in art history where so many things are possible. The dominant question of our era is not about what art could or should look like, where it should go, or who should make it. For hundreds of years artists have explored those subjects, and now we find ourselves in the post-post-modern era with those issues resolved. Now we can ask ourselves what can art do. And in answering that question, the first thing we might consider is to open the doors of all the white cubes and starchitect museums around the world, and let all that art, and all those artists, wander outside for awhile.







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