Public Exchange

Artist Mary Miss' plan for the space next to the new Federal Courthouse is vastly different from the statues and monolithic sculptures of the past. It's public art that actually keeps the public in mind.

The artist Mary Miss is perched a bit precariously on a stool in a cluttered design studio at Washington University. Architecture students surround her, standing, leaning on design tables or sharing space on a small, dilapidated sofa. In this cramped setting, the discussion is about space, the most advantageous use of it.

Laumeier Sculpture Park is serving as the semester's design problem — if there were to be a redesign of the park's facilities, how would it best be done? The students nervously present their models to Miss and to the class, muttering concepts of form and materials and scale and where to put a parking lot.

Miss, flown in from her home in New York for an evening lecture, isn't giving any nods of approval or encouragement. She keeps asking questions and is mildly flustered by the awkwardness of the give-and-take among strangers. She is tall and thin, and moves with the stiff grace of a large bird — a heron or a crane. A pale complexion accentuates her long, dark hair, which is developing streaks of gray. She has a wide mouth that easily breaks into — in this situation — an uneasy smile.

"The work that we may commission may be more conservative than the art world would like it to be. Our clients think it's cutting-edge. If I'm getting beaten up by the clients and by the art world, I'm in the right place."

— Susan Harrison, head of the General Services Administration's Art in Architecture program

Mary Miss: Her work asks the question “How can we deal with urban place-making in our time and redefine the way the built and the natural come together without a collision?”

The students have neglected fundamental questions, she tells them. What is a sculpture park? What is it for? How does it relate to the surrounding environment? Is Laumeier to remain stuck in the 19th-century model of a high-art enclave, separate from the neighboring high-rises, strip malls and upscale suburban homes? Or can Laumeier develop a relationship with that environment, so the two begin to coexist and affect one another?

With these ideas now lodged in the room, the rickety scale models and the placement of the parking lot are swept out of mind.

Questions such as these are emblematic of the investigatory approach to art-making that has taken Miss on a journey from being a woman seeking acceptance from the gallery system — another artist waiting anxiously for an appointment with a slide sheet in her hand — to an artist who sits in boardrooms with judges, city officials, architects, bankers and developers, seeking ways to influence the shaping of public space.

Part of the public artist's role — in a new era of public art in which Miss is a prominent figure — is to seek approval for the art from the public it is (supposedly) designed to serve. Her lecture that evening is titled "The Art of Engagement," with the slide show/discussion functioning as part of that engagement. She's making a pitch — for interest, momentum, perhaps dollars — for her plans for a public space adjacent to the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse under construction downtown. Speaking to a standing-room-only audience in Wash U.'s Steinberg Hall — with Eagleton seated in the front row like a benevolent Methuselah — she has a difficult task. The courthouse has become synonymous with the word "boondoggle," plagued by a list of problems — cost overruns, delays, mold, Chinese doors, the firing of the contractor by the General Services Administration (GSA) — that would sound funny if it were read aloud by Chico Marx. Miss has a tough, skeptical audience in light of what's already happened with the courthouse. It would take some kind of artist to spruce up the big pink penis violating the St. Louis skyline.

One advantage Miss has — before this audience, at least — is that whatever kind of artist she might be, she's not Richard Serra.

Que Serra, Serra

Richard Serra: the sculptor of Cor-Ten steel slabs; the creator of "Tilted Arc," the removal of which (from Federal Plaza in New York) was one of the storm centers of the '80s art-funding controversies; and the maker of "Twain," which, unlike "Tilted Arc," remains standing on its original site in downtown St. Louis as part of the ineffectual Gateway Mall. The debate over "Twain" has cooled over the years, but just as the piece blocks foot traffic through the square, it divides local sensibilities. "Twain" functions as either a cultural status symbol or as little more than a rusted public urinal.

Porter Arneill, who serves as an advisor on public art and education for the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), points out the irony surrounding the city's relationship to "Twain." Although St. Louis is linked internationally to one of the most recognized pieces of public sculpture of the 20th century, Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch, "the most well-known public sculpture in St. Louis to St. Louisans is "Twain.'"

"Twain," the forbidding rectilinear steel slabs that inhabit the west end of the Gateway Mall, arose unbidden before the community at large in 1982. The reception it received was not one of gratitude. To many people, "Twain" was forced on them by the distrustful "cultural elite" of the city, including Serra's principal patron, Emily Pulitzer. If this was public art, why weren't the unwashed masses consulted, or at least provided with some sort of educational access? Placed in the midst of a deteriorating urban core, "Twain" became a symbol of that decay, or even a cause. Aldermen began raising alarms about "Twain" as a structure that would encourage crime, with its tall steel slabs providing a hiding place for the nefarious.

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