The Pleasures And Perils Of Public Creativity.
THERE ONCE WAS a Tucson photographer who spent his working life recording the faces of the city's ordinary folks. From the late '30s to the early '60s, when just about every Tucsonan routinely traveled to the city's heart, the street photographer would prowl the busy sidewalks of Congress Street. "The guy hung out near the State Theatre at night," says artist Steve Farley.
The photographer, whose name so far has eluded researchers like Farley, had an MO that went like this. He would surreptitiously snap overburdened moms and loping young men, sauntering teenage girls and the elegant elderly. Then this paparazo del pueblo would approach his quarry.
"Here's a card," he would say. "Come down to Ted Litt if you want a picture of yourself."
Ted Litt, as everybody knew, was the drug store at Congress and Stone. The accidental models could stop by the drug store later and buy a little piece of immortality for 50 cents, in black and white, on a picture postcard.
Next May, the people pictured on the cards will get an even bigger shot at immortality. In one of the biggest public art projects ever approved in Tucson--with a budget of $170,000--artist Farley will install gigantic photographic tiles on the walls of the bleak new Broadway underpass just east of downtown. Fourteen Tucsonans photographed in those long-ago days will have their images writ larger than life on the underpass wall, their fading photos translated into crisp black and white and gray on ceramic.
"There are enough monuments to famous people in Tucson," says Farley, a graphic designer who has never before won a public art commission.
Farley's realistic photographic images, distinct in a public art climate that's heavy on metal, colored tiles, pop-art and ethnic symbolism, have won the enthusiastic support of everybody from politicians like City Manager Luis Gutierrez to art types like gallery owner Terry Etherton. Most gleeful of all are the ordinary citizens who sent in 197 of the old street photos in response to Farley's call. Among the portraits were a shot of the young David Fitzsimmons, editorial cartoonist of The Arizona Daily Star, tootling along in a stroller, and Lalo Guerrero, a Barrio Viejo native son who become a leading Latin musician of Hollywood. Guerrero was photographed as an up-and-coming young man striding purposefully along the street. He made the final cut; Baby Fitz did not.
"People are so happy they were being honored for who they were," says Farley, who did a dog-and-pony show of his proposal to 17 different community groups. "The seniors were overwhelmed. They said, 'It's so exciting! So great!' "
Farley's design is unusual because it literally puts the public into public art, but it's in tune with the times, when public art is no longer a marble hero in the public square. Nowadays, public art is conceived democratically: it's constructed by an artist, to be sure, but it's art of and for the people.
"The public is getting a collection of works of art that they own," says Barbara Grygutis, a Tucson artist who has won public art commissions all around the country. "They can see it without going to a museum."
Public art ideally makes the visual life of a city more interesting, delivering an aesthetic antidote to commerce, creating public spaces in an age when the public square is vanishing. Traditional murals celebrating ethnic heritage, like David Tineo's paintings at the El Rio Neighborhood Center, balance out the consumerist messages of squalid strip malls. Handmade terra cotta tiles on a bus depot of re-used brick, such as Melody Peters' at the Ronstadt Transit Center, counteract buildings of inhuman scale. All by itself, it can hardly make up for the strident ugliness of our fast-food joints, but public art stands for the hand-made against the machine-made, for community against alienation.
"There's a lot of anonymity and standardization in cities," says Chris Tanz, an artist who deliberately tries to create a sense of place in her environmental installations. "Public art is the antithesis of all that. There's something personal about it. The artist communicates with people. Public art is a sub-category of 'special places,' and special places give me enormous pleasure."
Tanz's large astronomical installation along the Rillito River Park, "Sun Circle," a collaboration with Paul T. Edwards and Susan Holman, is a Stonehengey affair whose stone walls are carefully synchronized to the changes in light during the equinoxes and solstices. It gives the artist no end of pleasure to find the remains of burned candles in its plaza, remnants of mysterious populist rituals related to the heavens.
"I always find dripping bits of wax: it's nice to know that something is being used for ceremonies that people have." There was even, she says, a story in the paper about a "croning ceremony" in the circle. Glimpsing past the women welcoming old age, "I could see the walls in the photograph."
In the last 10 years, the proud crones and other taxpayers of Tucson and Pima County have invested over $2 million in their public art collection, $2,062,390 to be exact, paying for about 75 works of art. The University of Arizona has its own active program--Grygutis this fall installed a large environmental piece outside the theatre and art museum. Likewise, Tucson International Airport acquires and commissions art; Grygutis and Tanz/Edwards both constructed long barriers emblazoned with art there, Grygutis with tools inside a green screen, Tanz and Edwards with metallic mountains and clouds. The Tucson Museum of Art runs its own program, with its most visible work the popular chicanismo mural on the north facade by David Tineo and Antonio Pazos.
The Federal Government has a program too, inspired by the worthwhile make-work arts programs of the Depression. Right now in Tucson, the feds are underwriting a little bit of art payback that may or may not compensate for the hulking courthouse they're constructing on Granada Avenue. Jim Waid is making the biggest painting of his life for the interior (see Tucson Weekly, July 28, 1998) and noted California artist Lita Albuquerque is a crafting a sculpture garden for the courtyard. Both are scheduled to be installed next summer.
But the bulk of the outdoor artwork making its appearance in the last decade has come about through the city and county's one-percent-for-art programs. Both governments have policies that require one percent of the construction budget for new municipal improvements or buildings to be devoted to art, or at least to artistic "enhancements. "
WHAT HAS the public gotten for its money?
"Sonora," David Black's much-maligned lipstick-red sculpture in front of the main library downtown, has remained the whipping boy of Tucson's growing collection, while Susan Gamble's beloved colored ceramic tiles installed in sculptural forms along the west bank of the Santa Cruz may be its jewel in the crown. Roger Asay's well-used bicycle paths along Mountain Avenue, art-ed up with stone spirals and boulders, are part of the collection, and so are the fleet of fanciful bus stops that recently sprouted around downtown, notably Laura Slenning's antic car-cum-shelter on Broadway at Fourth Avenue.
Tucsonans can expect to see a lot more in the next few years. Just east of Farley's photographic installation, Simon Donovan's gigantic snake bridge will rise over Broadway by early next summer. Pedestrians and bicyclists will move through the belly of the snake, high above the whizzing cars below, and peer out through its porous patterned screen at the Tucson skyline.
A grandly conceived Gateway to Tucson will go up at downtown's melancholy western edge, on a weedy lot just west of the I-10 exit ramp at Congress, lately home to the Desert Inn. A team of Rancho Linda Vista artists and architect Bob Vint are imagining an "art park" of walkways, with plantings by landscape architects Liba Wheat and Eric Scharf, punctuated by huge "Monoliths." These white forms, mildly evoking Spanish arches, will be big enough to be seen from the freeway, while tiny artifacts encrusted in their sides will entertain passers-by on foot.
At the low-key end, the bonds unleashed in last year's spring elections will flood the county with new art "enhancements," projects along new and widened roads all over the county. Just last week, seven artists got the nod to begin designing art for roads from Sunrise Drive to Ajo Way.
The deluge of new bond money caused some grousing among the county supervisors last March, when the art policy was up for renewal. The bond packages together total close to $800 million, to be disbursed over a dozen years or so. Some budget categories were already excluded from the art obligation, but uneasy politicians balked at spending a windfall of $8 million on art.
"Chuck Huckleberry proposed exempting several (new) categories in the budget from art," says David Hoyt Johnson, director of the public art program for the Tucson Pima Arts Council, which administers the percent for art programs. "And he proposed that art-based youth programs be funded from a public art set-aside."
Johnson is keenly aware of TPAC's "delicate role--we have to maintain a good relationship with the government entities and advocate on the artists' behalf and the citizens," and he and his boss, Dian Magie, TPAC's executive director, were not about to argue against kids' art programs. So they agreed to absolving certain departments from art, and to giving up 10 percent of the 1 percent art set-aside to the kids, in exchange for a counterproposal of their own. They asked that an artist be put on every design committee for environmental and waste management projects. Critics ridiculed the notion that the county should put "an artist in every duck pond."
"We just asked that there be an artist on the team with the engineer or hydrologist," Johnson says. Under the "team concept," artists are brought in early in the design stages, instead of being hauled in at the last moment and asked to fix some clunky structure with pretty art. It's hard to argue with Tucson's patently ugly infrastructure, and TPAC's idea prevailed.
It's the kind of compromise that happens all the time in public art. Almost by definition, the coupling of "public" and "art" does not a happy marriage make. Tiny though the art budgets are--and most artists argue that the fees are hardly making anyone rich--anti-tax types deplore even chump change going to make the city look better.
The big-bucks projects get the most attention, but those are few and far between. Of the 75 projects in the last 10 years, 10 cost $5,000 or less, 11 came in between $5,000 ans $10,000, 12 between $10,000 and $15,000. Sometimes the artists make virtually no money. For her Santa Cruz tiles, a $15,000 project, Gamble says, "We broke even. I took no pay. I paid the others and I paid for the materials." There was no money for anything else.
Bob Vint, the architect working on the Congress Street Gateway, remembers that when he made the big ceramic lizard clinging to Irvington Road a few years ago, $7 million went to the road, while $50,000 went for the fanciful lizard. Yet it was the lizard's cost that roused people's ire.
"To us, roads are really really important. We spend millions on them, and we pay a fraction for the art. Then everybody complains about the money wasted on art. No one ever says about a road, Oh, what a waste of money.'"
Even the art park, with the highest-ever public art budget in the program, is a bargain at $250,000. The gateway park has a big job: it's supposed to transform the entrance to Tucson's downtown, welcome visitors to the city, and signal its interesting cultural mix. Yet "we're doing it for about half the cost of a typical foothills house," Vint says. "The art park is on leftover land by the highway, if you want to look at it cynically."
THE ART itself can be even more explosive than the issue of money, as lingering resentment over the library's 1991 "Sonora" attests. Some artists worry that there's been too little controversy in the years since, the quiet suggesting that the public's collection contains only safe art.
"It's almost a red flag that things aren't right," says new genre artist Herb Stratford, who won his first commission last week, a county project on Golf Links Road. "Art is about opening up dialogue."
But that season of peace ended abruptly this summer, when some westside neighborhood leaders detected a strong aversion to submarine fins among their constituents. (See accompanying story). Coincidentally, John Young, like "Sonora's" David Black, is an out-of-towner, though outsiders account for only a small number of the artists getting Tucson commissions. Though Young says that most of his $60,000 budget was to be spent on local installation contractors and the like, an artist's outsider status typically inflames a dispute about design.
Anyway, says Young, passion about art is a good thing.
"Public art, if it's good, is always going to be controversial. If everybody likes it, you did something wrong. It should provoke thought and discussion. If it's good art it's meant to generate discussion and bring attention to issues in the culture."
Most of the time, though, public art designs get approved and built with relative ease, without the general public or politicians taking the slightest interest in them. TPAC has constructed a labyrinthine system of selection panels and community meetings meant to mediate between public and artist. The ability to get along with fractious neighbors is a talent that helps separate the public artist from the solitary studio artist. Michelangelo may not have had to make a presentation to the community to get the OK to put a giant nude David in a Florentine plaza, but today's artists do.
Susan Gamble, for one, says that working with the westside communities on her Santa Cruz Linear Park mosaics was a pure joy. She solicited texts from the assorted barrios and incorporated the residents' words into her work.
"I had a strong feel for the neighborhood, and I thought I had something to contribute to the history of the neighborhood, to the river, to art," Gamble says. It's significant, she says, that since her tiles went up in 1992, not a single vandal has dared spray paint upon it.
If artists have to negotiate among community people, they also debate among themselves about the way the whole deal works. They readily pronounce their glee at finding a new way to make a living at art, but they disagree over who should get the commissions--bona fide studio artists only or anybody with a good idea? Should they be restricted to local yokels, or should art by outsiders with a name be welcomed as prestigious additions to the collection? Younger artists with no commissions under their belts, or in their portfolios, complain of having a tough time breaking in, the Steve Farley case notwithstanding, while worrying that repeat winners are boring Tucson with a single aesthetic. Is Tucson commissioning art that will endure--Cadillacs, snakes and tile hearts--or will future generations roll their eyes at the fin de siécle taste that permanently imposed itself on the city's public spaces?
Repeat commissions are the hottest topic of late. Winners seem to go in cycles: for a long time it was Tanz/Edwards, then ceramicist Linda Haworth. Now, Simon Donovan is man of the hour. Last week, with partners Alez Garza and Richard Green, he snagged one of the biggest of the Pima roadway commissions.
"I'm the Wetmore/Ruthrauff guy," he jokes.
But it bothers some that he's already working on three other public jobs, the Broadway snake, Hohokam-inspired sculptures for the new city Community Services Building, and a rose garden gazebo for the Tucson House. His colorful "Flying Books" went up on Woods Library earlier this year.
The way Donovan sees it, he's worked hard to perfect what he does.
"Once you get your foot in the door, it makes all the difference, but to set your foot in you have to have a good idea."
It's no secret that the selection juries are comforted by an artist's prior experience. Donovan, a painter, had long worked on other projects to make money, designing textiles and crafting gates on private commission. To get his first public commission, "Flying Books," he was able to show slides of his metal gates, and now he can show slides of the colorful metal books pinned to the library's walls.
Grygutis says other cities do set limits and suggests Tucson could restrict artists to two active commissions in a single time period. "If one artist gets four or five jobs in a row, artists will be too timid to apply. If you don't (restrict) you get too much of one aesthetic."
Hoyt Johnson is hearing the complaints. Last week he told TPAC's public art committee that Donovan's many commissions "say two things: he's a pretty interesting artist, and we've got a lot of programs coming up and he's applied for them." And he noted that two first-timers had just won roadway commissions. Still, he's concerned enough about the issue that he has asked the committee to re-visit the idea of limiting commissions.
Hardly any artists support the idea of restricting jobs to locals, especially since many have gone on to make successful careers in other cities. Gamble and Ned Gray just installed one of their works in Boston, while Grygutis is working in San Diego and elsewhere. Donovan is hoping his snake will be a springboard to big out-of-town commissions. But they do disagree over exactly who an artist is. Right now TPAC leaves the term undefined, and architects, landscape architects and even a psychologist have snapped the commissions up.
"These funds should not be spent for architects," Grygutis says. "The real idea is to bring diversity to the team. Artists provide a different viewpoint. When you put an architect in there you lose diversity."
Architect Vint, not surprisingly, disagrees.
"Architects are doing art, artists are doing architecture. I like the fact that the distinction between the two is fading. It's healthy for the disciplines to come together."
HAS THE one-percent-for-art program done the city any good? Steve Farley hopes his photographic mural will be a welcome jolt to downtown. Filling it up with people of long-ago, he says, "I'm going for a type of public art that says this is what the downtown once was, what it could be."
Gary Mackender's tile mural on I-10 at Miracle Mile cheerfully heralds the entrance to the city, but much of our public art is hidden away, far from the daily rounds of Tucsonans. In 1994, Melody Peters and Cristina Cardenas lovingly assembled a colored tile mural in the heroic tradition of the great Mexican muralists. It's full of idealized workers and diligent farmers and loving mothers. But it's held prisoner 20 feet behind chain link and barbed wire on the walls of the Pima County Jail at Mission Road and Silverlake. A stern sign in red and white on the fence warns visitors to stay at least 20 feet distant. A visiting art lover thus must squint at it from a distance of 40 feet, through chain link.
Tanz wryly notes that the mural's setting forces the viewer "to peer in, the way people in the prison peer out. It's an accidental commentary."
Other pieces provide accidental encounters. Tucsonans who get out of their cars once in a while, and run and bicycle and speed-skate along the linear river parks, are about the only ones who get to see much of the river collection. Gamble's Santa Cruz tiles are accessible by car from Riverside Drive, but Grygutis has four sculpture plazas tucked along the river's pedestrian pathways. The northernmost one is a green-tiled arch facing west over the empty riverbed, beautifully framing Tumamoc Hill. Its curves allude to the region's Spanish architecture; its blues and greens honor the river that once was, and the prickly pear cactus growing out of the top provides a real-life counterpart to a tile tree embedded in the concrete floor.
The piece is strangely located, just south of Speedway, a stone's throw from the noisy on-ramp for I-10. Yet on a bright-blue winter's day last week, one person was clearly enjoying this conscientious piece, its plaza and its gorgeous view. A homeless man on a picnic bench presided over the place, grandly partaking of the art that belongs to him and every other member of the public.
Anatomy Of A Public Art Debacle.
THE PROTEST OVER John T. Young's "Swords into Plowshares," the "fins" art proposed for Tucson's Silverlake Road, made a perfect news story.
It had no end of juicy elements: class conflict with a subtext of racial politics; the squandering of public money; the knuckle-headed pretensions of contemporary art. And perhaps best of all, the chance for headline writers to indulge in a host of puns. "A farewell to arms" and "Residents sink art made from submarine parts," screamed the papers. The local media, including this newspaper, jumped right in and played the story by rote. The "people" had risen up to the defy the elite art establishment. Drawing on their salt-of-the-earth wisdom, they had summoned the courage to denounce the elite's pointy-headed plan to put decommissioned submarine fins in their neighborhood.
Great story, no doubt about it, except that it might not be true.
"The people from the neighborhood loved it," said Jim Seidman, president until this month of A Mountain Neighborhood Association. "We need a bold statement."
Nina Borgia-Aberle, an artist on the selection panel, echoed Seidman, "The people representing the neighborhood who were there were in full support of it."
Some critics see the fins saga as the opposite of the media's populist fable. This version has powerful politicians overturning a democratic process, justifying their actions by invoking "a people" who are never named. It was politicians who "shot down the proposal," Seidman said. "The city manager stepped in and said no."
Ned Gray, an artist who sat on the selection panel, agrees.
"The process was subverted. Every effort was made to include the community...We have one person who walks in and subverts the process and tells us we're all wrong."
City Manager Luis Gutierrez quashed the project, citing "numerous comments of concern" and "insensitiv(ity) to the history and culture of this particular area," in an August 5 letter to the Tucson Pima Arts Council. At that point, the selection panel had already been at work on the project for almost a year. Gutierrez softened the blow by offering to find another home for "Swords into Plowshares," while calling for new art for Silverlake, which the city transportation department is widening. TPAC's public art committee grumbled about the Gutierrez veto at its September meeting, with member Stan Kryzyanowski complaining that "12 or 13 people are dictating to Tucson." But mindful of the precarious political standing of public art, the members voted to go along.
WHAT WENT WRONG? Silverlake Road is a degraded streetscape of auto wreckers, gravel pits, jails and a few scattered trailers and houses. South of A Mountain and west of the Santa Cruz, it's a strip whose history and culture have heretofore escaped the notice of politicians. Following the dictates of the city's own public art policy, Hoyt Johnson a year ago appointed a diverse panel of unpaid volunteers to pick the art that would go along the widened roadway. The panelists consisted of two neighborhood residents, two artists, a Latina art teacher from Sunnyside High School, and two city staffers from the transportation department. Transportation is exempt from the one-percent-for-art rule, but it complies voluntarily, and issued an open-ended call for art along the roadway. The budget--$60,000--was big enough to attract 35 proposals, an atypically large number.
The selection process, said Albert Elias, one of the transportation staffers "was quite routine." The panel put in a long year of unpaid work in the trenches of democracy, sifting through the art proposals, presenting and questioning and discussing competing ideas in any number of public neighborhood meetings. Neighbors within a two-mile radius were invited to the forums by fliers mailed to their homes; the fliers were written in English and Spanish.
Two local art teams were among the three finalists; Young, the winner, is a Seattle artist of some repute. Made of 1960s sub parts contributed by the U.S. Navy, his "Swords to Plowshares" is intended as an international monument to peace and, conversely, as a memorial to the submariners of the Cold War. Evoking the sea, the giant fins--some 12 feet tall--will be installed only along waterways. His first fins installation was dedicated along a Seattle lake on Memorial Day; another is underway on a Pacific bluff in Los Angeles. Negotiations are proceeding for a Russian location, Young said by telephone from Seattle, where he's an art professor at the University of Washington.
Rundown Silverlake may be, but it's near Tucson's designated birthplace at the foot of A Mountain, and some panelists worried that the fins didn't adequately represent Tucson's history. Young believes they do.
"It's about the fact that Tucson once was under an ocean," he said. "Fish were swimming around Tucson before there were any people. It's about pre-human history...(it) creates this sense of geologic history. The beauty of the site is it's on a river wash."
Nevertheless, the panel was split, 4-3, over Young's plan. A divided vote is unusual; Transportation got nervous and asked TPAC to do a presentation for a couple of groups charged with overseeing the Santa Cruz. When the Santa Cruz River Commission unanimously voiced its displeasure with "Swords," TPAC's board decided to bring Young back to town August 3 to do another public presentation for the neighbors.
At that point, the loudest voices raised against Young's project were those of José Ibarra, Ward 1 Councilman, and Lillian Lopez-Grant, powerful president of Menlo Park Neighborhood Association and an outspoken member of the Santa Cruz River Commission. An Ibarra staffer said at the August 3 meeting that Ibarra's Hispanic constituents considered the fins to be militaristic, despite the artist's intended message of pacifism.
What troubles participants is that the residents who were said to hate Young's art didn't come to the meetings and say so.
"The 'silent' people were not there," said Seidman.
Hoyt Johnson remembers that at the August 3 meeting, "We got no expressions of objections to the artist's proposal with one exception. Ibarra's aide said they had been contacted."
And the number of these unnamed and invisible dissidents kept shifting. Young remembers the staffer speaking of 100 opponents, which he said would be "unusual" in a public art debate. TPAC public art representative Jane Kroesen reported to her colleagues that the staffer told her there were 12 or 13 complainants. Ibarra himself told the Tucson Weekly he received some 24 messages on his voice mail.
Ibarra said he's the one who brought the residents' objections to Gutierrez.
"The voices of the neighborhood kept being pushed off," Ibarra said last week. "The reality was if they (the panelists) would have been listening beforehand they could have seen that the neighborhood wanted something else."
Two days after the meeting where only a politician's aide publicly opposed the project, Gutierrez canceled it.
Gutierrez did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Lopez-Grant last week once again denounced the fins as "recycled junk that's offensive" and slammed the selection process, saying it intimidates neighborhood residents.
"The problem is the process established by TPAC," Lopez-Grant said. "The neighborhood residents were outnumbered and intimidated. People don't want to be made to feel dumb or uncultured so they go along."
But participants say neither Lopez-Grant nor Ibarra attended the meetings that they allege were flawed. And those who did attend deny that anybody was coerced.
"I didn't see any intimidation at all," said Elias, the city transportation planner.
"In every single panel I've been on there's been no intimidation," said artist Borgia-Aberle. "To say that artists intimidated anyone is absurd. Everyone was respectful and interested in each other's opinions. People work in clichés to get what they want."
Lopez-Grant lives in Menlo Park on the other side of A Mountain, but she defends her interest in Silverlake by saying that the westside neighborhoods stick together. Seidman doesn't see it that way.
"Lillian sticks her nose in everybody's business," Seidman said. "She feels proprietary about the entire Santa Cruz River."
And it angers those who did the gut work of slogging through meetings that those who didn't bother to come were successful in overturning a legitimate vote.
"If you didn't go to the meetings, why are you suddenly complaining that you don't like what was picked?" asked Seidman with exasperation.
Added Borgia-Aberle, "I'd encourage José to get the people out there to become more involved in the process. You have to give up the time and energy."
WHAT'S NEXT for the fins? Fourteen neighborhoods have registered an interest in having them, said Hoyt Johnson, and he has high hopes for a site along the Pantano Wash. A TPAC committee has scheduled a meeting in next month to solicit input from neighbors for a new Silverlake proposal, pointedly inviting residents of Silverlake and their immediate neighbors on Cottonwood and Santa Cruz lanes. The new group will keep in mind Gutierrez's new mandate to incorporate history, culture and tradition into every public art project in and near downtown.
Lopez-Grant said the Westside Coalition is planning to tackle the public art problem in the new year, partly by seceding from the city's process while still using public money.
"I want our people to choose it. We want to be in control of artwork in our neighborhoods. I don't care who the experts are. We're the ones who have to live with it. It belongs to us...We would form our own selection committee. We have our own artists and we can use them."
And Seidman sighed about the art his neighborhood will get in the end.
"When you choose an artist through the percent for art, it's going to be run of the mill. It won't be anything out of the ordinary, or make a bold statement. Politicians don't want that controversy...I think the artist got screwed. It was a really good project."
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