Why is so much of our public art so meh? Maybe because it’s missing, oh, you know, artists
How does the city wind up with the public art that it does? Pose that question in a tone of heated disbelief and you have the gist of a recent social-media flare-up over art benches chosen by the city to dot Main Street. Found to be uninspiring, they prompted the local arterati to a quick consensus: The selection process is messed up. However, asked with a sense of appreciative wonder, that question could just as easily underline your delight that a piece as intellectually knotty as Stephen Hendee’s “Monument to the Simulacra” (at Fifth Street School) somehow slipped through that same process. As is so often the case in government work, it’s an inexact process.
Though much falls under the rubric of “public art” — from the corporate-art heavyweights of CityCenter to the Downtown murals bequeathed by Life is Beautiful — we’re talking specifically about art selected, installed and paid for by government entities. This can be a thorny issue for many reasons: cost to taxpayers; citizen sensitivities; the aesthetic merit of committee decisions — even its basic purpose. What’s public art supposed to do? “The jury is still out: Is it necessary?” says Brian “Paco” Alvarez, a member of the Las Vegas Art Commission, which takes the lead on public art in the city. “Especially in a city like Las Vegas, is it necessary? I believe it is.” To a modest degree (the commission’s budget for the next fiscal year is about $230,000), local governments and agencies think so, too; from cities to the county to the Regional Transportation Commission, they regularly fund the creation and maintenance of public art — some good, some mediocre, some occasionally controversial.
This month marks another big step in that process: Local artists have until July 29 to submit their credentials to create the city’s next high-profile work, what Arts Commission Chairman Stephen Grogan calls “a signature piece,” to be installed as part of the Main Street Improvement Project. It’s got a hefty budget, $246,000. It’s our next chance to see how if a municipal arts bureaucracy can get it right.
Hitting the benches
“I knew you were going to come back to the benches,” Grogan says with a resigned chuckle. He’s sitting at a table in PublicUs, explaining the commission’s process. But now we’ve come back to the benches because they throw into relief some challenges inherent in that process.
In late April, the city released images of the bench styles selected by the Arts Commission for incorporation into the Main Street improvement. Created by a Wisconsin artist, they were inspired by fireworks, mountains, hot rods — nothing deeply expressive of the Main Street area. Trite and superficial, fumed many in the arts community. “The process isn’t flawed, it’s broken,” went one typical sentiment, echoed by others as the issue migrated from Facebook into the Las Vegas Weekly. Arts blogger Ed Fuentes impishly dubbed it “Benchgazi.”
In theory, the process is simple: When an art project is available, artists submit their credentials. A panel of the Arts Commission selects the artist its members believe is most qualified. That choice is ratified by the full commission and, if it’s a large enough project, it goes before the City Council to approve the expenditure. Then the artist begins devising the work. “We ask them to learn about the community, to learn about the site, and create a piece of art specifically for that site,” says Dianne Cripe, who coordinates public art for the city.
In practice, it’s rarely so simple. In the case of the benches, the process was rushed to meet a Public Works deadline, Grogan and Alvarez say — there was no time to press the artist for a redo. The artist wasn’t local and, in the eyes of critics, was insufficiently familiar with the local gestalt. The specs were subject to several restrictions imposed by Public Works (they had to be made of metal, for ease of maintenance, and couldn’t be too comfortable, lest the homeless camp on them).
These sorts of realities are endemic to the process. Time, for instance. “An undue amount of time is taken by the bureaucrats, but the artist is given a small amount of time to create the work,” says Denise Duarte, a former public-art specialist for Clark County and an artist who’s created public pieces. Additionally, Alvarez partially blames the process of selecting an artist by qualifications instead of site-specific proposals. And aesthetic decisions made by committee are frequently unsatisfying — though, as Grogan asks, who would you want making those decisions?
The episode of the benches echoes previous public-art flaps, notably the “Gateway Paintbrushes” by the late Dennis Oppenheim, and, back in the 1990s, “Ground Zero,” the notorious piece marring the side of the old City Hall. The light-up paintbrushes on Charleston near Main caught several varieties of flak: for being underwhelming; for responding more to the Strip than their site; for being commissioned from an outside “name” artist.
“Ground Zero” was undone when, late in the game, Public Works forced massive changes in the design, said Patrick Gaffey, a member of Arts Commission when the piece was commissioned, during a February 2014 talk on public art. A bona fide fiasco, “Ground Zero” was eventually taken down and lingers as a cautionary example of a flawed process.
Have we learned anything from those episodes, Alvarez wonders? Despite $200,000 worth of blah benches soon to sprout on Main Street, perhaps a few lessons have been learned. The city is restricting bids for the Main Street “signature piece” to local artists, and, Grogan says, Public Works is working closely with the Art Commission to ensure a smoother process. And it’s not like official bureaucracies haven’t produced successes: Art in America magazine named Hendee’s “Monument” as one of the nation’s 10 best public artworks in 2007. ZAP!, a county program that wraps power boxes in original art, has proven popular. Even the paintbrushes helped put Vegas on the national map, Fuentes says. There’s Claes Oldenburg’s flashlight at UNLV, a very successful effort in art-based place-making. As for the benches, a city spokesman told the Weekly that they’d generated plenty of supportive social media, too.
On the other hand, there are the metal animals popping up in medians and at freeway onramps. “Those aren’t public art because no artist was involved in creating them,” Duarte says. And it would be a shame if they conditioned an already skeptical public to think that’s what public art should be, rather than a more complex piece it may take years for a community to embrace. Done right, as in art-rich Seattle or in Chicago’s Millennium Park, art can create a vigorous sense of place, and spark conversations about what we as a society value.
And that, more or less, is how the city ends up with the public art it does. Fuentes, for one, is moderately upbeat the results. “It doesn’t suck as much as you think it might,” he says. If not a rallying cry, at least that’s a start.