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.

"To me, the key is that if art is placed in public, it needs to address public needs as opposed to the private creative dreams of an artist or patron. Public art needs wit, and it functions when it entertains and makes a place where people can and want to gather." Weil believes that if St. Louis can "rise to the occasion," Miss' project could "take the notion of public art to another level."

Where have all the cowboys gone?

After "Tilted Arc" was removed from Federal Plaza in the dark of night on the Ides of March 1989 — the culmination of eight years of letter-writing campaigns; panel hearings, lawsuits and countersuits; and a heated public debate in the New York and national press — what Casey Blake calls the "liberal-modernist" model for public art was dismantled along with it. The GSA, which had worked in partnership with the NEA's public-art component since the 1960s, has gradually distanced itself from the Endowment, preferring not to be associated with those wonderful folks who brought you "Piss Christ."

"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?”

Michael Faubian, who works as a division coordinator at the Endowment, is chagrined by the NEA's pariah status. After the "Tilted Arc" fiasco, it was the NEA's Richard Andrews, director of the Endowment's visual-arts program from 1986-90, who advised the GSA on the redesign of its selection process.

The changes that Andrews suggested and that were later implemented sought to "involve the community and tenants of the public building more integrally in the whole process of selecting public art," Faubian explains, "so perhaps in the future the outrages that happened with "Tilted Arc' could be prevented."

The key to the approach the GSA now takes (the NEA's Art in Public Places program was cut when the Endowment's budget was slashed) is expressed by Susan Harrison, head of the GSA's Art in Architecture program: "We don't like to make decisions in a vacuum without community input."

A panel of 10 or 11 volunteers is put together. "We try to bring diverse interests to the table," says Harrison, "in terms of art professionals as well as people from the community, people that represent constituencies larger than themselves. We always include our client who's going to be in the building — typically that might be a judge, that might be a clerk of the court, it might be somebody from the U.S. attorney's office." In St. Louis this panel includes Judge Edward L. Filippine, RAC's Jill McGuire and architect Gyo Obata — a group that might be considered diverse but doesn't exactly sound as if it encompasses members of the vulgar public.

This group comes together, discusses the parameters of the project and selects the artist. And it is with this group that the artist must achieve consensus as to what the project will be. As Miss describes the process, "It's to get through this whole bizarre, complex labyrinth of local sentiment, politics, needs, desires — it is a very complex situation."

It's a process that calls for a diplomatic, managerial personality, one antithetical to that of "the artist who gets to be the cowboy and comes in and talks tough and behaves badly and chews tobacco and spits on the floor," as Miss describes her own "caricature of the guy artist."

"It's such an opposite role for anyone who is trying to work in this public domain. You have to go to meetings. You have to talk people into things. You have to really convince people that you're going to be with this the whole way through, that you're reliable, that you're not flaky, that you're serious, that you're a real citizen participant in this realm."

In this new era of public art, it is an inappropriate time for the uncompromising artist. Critics argue that public art that has emerged since "Tilted Arc" — an art created through community input and committee consensus — is a watered-down art that lacks a distinctive artistic vision.

In her response to this criticism, Susan Harrison defines the territory the artist and the government patron must negotiate together in the public realm: "I feel like I'm often in a difficult place because the work that we may commission may be more conservative than the art world would like it to be. In terms of our clients, they 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."

Miss acknowledges the risks inherent in such a process but doesn't believe public art inevitably loses any potency: "I did this project at the South Cove in New York City, and I was working for the Battery Park City Authority, which isn't that much different a client than the GSA. What I wanted to do was to make a place that really engaged people, that had a potency to it in a public place along the water's edge in New York City."

The Battery Park Project is one of the most highly regarded public-art projects in the country. A landfill was created along the river in lower Manhattan from earth removed for the building of the World Trade Center. Miss designed a public space within a dense city, providing people with air, water, sky, views of skyline and sea.

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