Director of Transportation Jim Glock announced last week that the city would remove two sculptures that were installed in recent months along Mountain Avenue at Glenn Street and Fort Lowell Road. Transportation officials are now working with artist Paul Edwards to find a new home for the work, which has cost the city at least $106,425 so far.
The decision caps a collision of art and politics that erupted when Edwards' sculptures--"Pipe With Flow 30" " and "Splash"--were installed as part of a midtown drainage project. Critical reaction to the artwork was swift and scathing. Jean Brown, manager of the Quik-Mart next to the sculpture, doesn't mince words when talking about "Pipe with Flow 30" "
"It looks like sewage running out of a sewage pipe," she says.
Brown isn't alone in her indelicate interpretation. Last week, the transportation department released a survey of area residents and other interested parties that showed 558 respondents wanted to flush the artwork, while only 275 wanted to see it finished to include another sculpture and three bus benches. (See "Everybody's A Critic.") One scrawled comment reads simply: "Poop! It looks like poop!"
Ken Hill, the thickly bearded co-chair of the Hedrick Acres neighborhood association, says when he first saw the artwork, he thought a sewer pipe was sticking out of the ground.
"Then I saw that it was in fact intended to be a sculpture," Hill says. "My first thought was, 'What has our neighborhood done to the city to get them to put this kind of thing in our area?' I thought it was really an insult. The artwork celebrates broken sewer pipes and the brown sludge going through it."
The biggest gripe about the work centers around that brown color. Edwards, an architect who has done several public art installations over the last dozen years, says he chose brown because it's the color of water that flows through desert washes like the Rillito River. It never even occurred to him that people might suggest that it was sewage until someone brought it up.
"The interpretation seemed obvious as soon as it was pointed out," concedes Edwards, who points out that it wasn't seen that way by everyone. "A few people perceived it that way and a few people didn't like it and there are a lot of people who didn't perceive it that way and who do like it."
Count Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar as one of those who don't like it.
"I started getting phone calls asking, 'What in the hell are you doing on Mountain Avenue?'" Dunbar remembers. "We drove over to the Quik-Mart and I just couldn't believe it."
As Dunbar investigated the matter, she discovered that the city's transportation department had dropped the ball on the public presentation of the artwork.
"We failed to go out to the public and let them know what was going to go up and hear their ideas about it," says transportation department spokesman Michael Graham. "It won't happen again, I can guarantee that."
THE MOUNTAIN AVENUE project dates back to 1995, when Edwards won a commission based on a conceptual presentation involving flowing water. Even Dunbar says the pitch was outstanding. "If he had shown me this, I would have picked him," she says.
But funding for the project dried up until Tucson voters approved a bond package in 2000. When the city finally got to work on the $7.7 million project in early 2002, Edwards discovered only $40 million was available for the project. He cajoled the department to bump up the total available funds to $140,000.
But transportation officials failed to present plans for the artwork when they held open houses for the Mountain Avenue project. When Edwards began his installation at Mountain and Fort Lowell, the work came as a shock to some residents, who contacted Dunbar. And then, as they say, the shit hit the fan.
Edwards says he had no idea of the negative reaction until he was summoned to a meeting at the Ward 3 office, where he found himself unexpectedly facing a hostile crowd of critics. "It was awful," he recalls.
"The overwhelming opinion from these people was that they didn't like the color, and if this was indeed water, why isn't it blue?" he says. "The implication was if we were to somehow make it blue, that all the controversy go away. That was the last thing I wanted to do."
Edwards says his sculptures were meant to complement the public art already in place along Mountain Avenue between Speedway Boulevard and Grant Road, which consists of artfully arranged boulders "that talk about pieces of mountains and erosion and drainage and things like that.
"We took this boulder idea and combined with this fluid water form into liquid rock," Edwards adds. "And liquid rock is one way we described it, but it's also the metaphor for water. The forms are constructed in very fluid forms, everything about them suggests liquid and water except the color. But even the color is apropos for desert water."
The brown color opens the work to multiple interpretation; one person told him that it looked like cracked mud at the bottom of a dry riverbed. "That's one I hadn't even thought of," he says. "But as soon as you go make it blue, there's only one way to interpret it, and that's blue water. It sort of loses all these other layers of meaning."
But the angry neighbors had their own interpretation: They saw themselves suddenly up shit creek--and they didn't much like it. They demanded that Edwards do something about the artwork.
Edwards came to the next meeting with a number of alternatives, including an option of adding blue-green or other colored tile to the sculpture. His price tag: an additional $60,000.
The offer which was swiftly rejected by the neighbors, who proposed they do their own tile job. The situation became so heated that a group of graduate students from a UA conflict resolution class declared their interest in studying the situation as a project.
Many of the neighbors saw Edwards as arrogant. "He does not respond very well to citizen participation," says Hill. "I think that kind of response is inappropriate in public art."
Following that meeting, Edwards was ready to walk away from the project, but transportation officials persuaded him to stick with it while they sent out a neighborhood survey to gauge public opinion. When the votes were tallied, the people had voted roughly 2-to-1 in favor of scrapping the project. Last Tuesday, April 15, one day after the transportation department released the results, officials announced the department would remove the artwork.
David Hoyt Johnson, of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, was leery of the decision to survey residents about the sculpture.
"We certainly don't think that artwork should be selected or its survival determined by some kind of poll," he says.
But if that idea was unsettling, Johnson was mortified by the earlier suggestion that residents take over the project, putting their own blue tiles on the artwork. He says that raises legal concerns regarding the artist's copyright as well as other issues.
"That should never happen," says Johnson. "It would violate the integrity of the artwork. If the artist invites that kind of post-design participation or is willing to reopen the process to work with residents to consider design modifications, that's fine, but it has to be entirely voluntary on the part of the artist."
Johnson apologizes for the breakdown in the public process, which created "a really difficult situation."
"We expect some controversy with public art," says Johnson. "Art is something about which most of us have opinions, and most of our opinions are based on what we know and what we're familiar with. And many of us don't like what we don't know and what is new and not what we expect."
The battle over Edwards' work is the worst Johnson's ever seen erupt. Other than the continuing outrage over the red "Sonora" sculpture outside the downtown library and a minor controversy over some art incorporating submarine fins in a westside neighborhood a few years back, public art commissions have rarely raised hackles.
City policy calls for setting aside 1 percent of construction budgets for public art and beautification. Since 1986, the city has commissioned more than 80 projects through the Tucson-Pima Arts Council, a nonprofit agency that supports the local arts. For its $1.9 million budget, TPAC received roughly $1.1 million dollars from the city in the fiscal year that ends in June. (The agency also gets funding from Pima County, the state and the federal government, as well as other grants, commissions and donations.) Among other activities, TPAC manages the process of local public commissions.
For each city project, TPAC officials issue a call to artists, who submit conceptual pitches to a seven-member selection committee made up of two artists, two community representatives, a staffer from the city department funding the project, a member of the project design team and an arts professional who is not a practicing artist. Once the selection committee makes its pick, TPAC's board of directors reviews the project before sending it to city officials for final approval.
For the most part, the process has served the city well. Many of the projects, such as Steve Farley's photographic tileworks along Broadway Boulevard at the entrance of downtown, have drawn high praise. Others have quietly brightened river parks, roadways and public buildings.
Edwards, frequently working alongside local artist Chris Tanz, has won more than a half-dozen local art commissions in the last 12 years. Among his works are "Silver Lining," a steel sculpture near the security checkpoint at Tucson International Airport; "Sand Trout," a series of metal fish in a wash near Tanque Verde and Wilmot roads; and "Many Color Mountain," a megalithic concrete canyon in front of Kennedy Library near Mission Road and Ajo Way. His most controversial pieces before the Mountain Avenue mess were retaining walls on First Avenue between River and Orange Grove roads.
"They were very colorful, too bright in most people's opinion," he says. "I got lots of hate mail on that one. It all went away. Most people like it now, it seems like."
A controversy like the Mountain Avenue debacle threatens support of public art, says Dunbar, who insists that she believes its valuable, although she'd like to see changes to the current process.
"We've got some problems with TPAC," says Dunbar. "You ought to have at least one neighborhood representative who's reporting back to the neighborhood."
At last Monday's council meeting, Dunbar succeeded in having a review of the public art policy set for the Good Government Committee that she chairs.
As for Mountain Avenue, she remains upset by city funds spent on the project.
"I can't say that I'm happy with the outcome," says Dunbar. "I was just so disappointed that it ever came to this."
The Republican councilwoman, who represents a heavily Democratic ward, has scored some political points with the area's neighborhood leadership, some of whom had worked in 2001 on the campaign of her Democratic opponent, Paula Aboud. One Aboud supporter, Mountain/First neighborhood association president Judi Stern, has developed a new respect for the Republican councilwoman. After arriving at last Monday's council meeting to support Dunbar, Stern gave her a big hug during a break in the action.
Hedrick Acre's Ken Hill says he was upset by Dunbar's push for a half-cent sales tax last year, but his "perceptions of the office have changed entirely."
"I'm a left-winger and I thought our council person was an extreme right-winger and would not be subject to reason, because that's my general opinion of right-wingers," says Hill. "I was wrong.... She is trying to be responsive to the neighbors in some very positive ways."
SO WHAT'S NEXT?
At a meeting last week, Glock presented the residents with two choices: using the remaining $60,000 to commission a new public art piece through TPAC, or just spending the money with the landscape architect who's currently working on the project. The assembled neighbors at last week's meeting leaned heavily toward the latter option.
Edwards, who's "disappointed" by the department's decision, says he doesn't imagine the gig would draw much interest from local artists anyway.
"It's hard for me to imagine that any artist in their right mind would apply for that thing and go back into that rat's nest and go through what I've been through," he says.
Glock told the crowd that it could take a few months to remove the artwork while the city searches for a new home for "Pipe With Flow 30" " and "Splash."
"It's hard to imagine putting it somewhere else," Edwards says. "That doesn't mean I'm not willing to consider another spot."
And if nobody steps forward to claim the sculpture?
"It will probably be broken up into tiny pieces and sold like the Berlin Wall," Edwards says.