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.

"I don't think that's watered-down," she argues. "Many people are taken by this place. Many want to return. They want to spend time there. It's a space for reflection. I make that with absolutely no apologies, and I feel there's absolutely nothing watered-down about it.

"Is it different from something that would be on the grounds of some collector in Texas or California? Yes, it's going to be different. There are all kinds of safety codes, all kinds of things that one has to deal with in this real world. But the thing that's interested me all these years is finding a way to enter that realm and affect it in some way.

"It's absolutely the most important territory that artists can be investigating. It has to do with our lives, with how to proceed with the future, about changing people's attitudes toward each other, toward the way they relate to each other. It's about absolutely essential issues of our lives, and for the first time in a very long time artists are having a chance to address those issues. It's the cutting edge."

"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?”

Miss' work dissolves boundaries. Landscape design, urban planning, architecture — these are all terms her artwork could be called. Is it art only because an artist makes it? Actually, that's not a bad definition of art. But as Miss attempts to create spaces where people would want to be, she is simultaneously erasing the distance between art and audience. People inhabit her art, participate in it. It can be beautiful, pleasing to the senses, observable, but it is not separate. It is art so fully integrated into life that the difference between the two disappears.

Off-site, off-budget

Contacted in New York, months after her last visit to St. Louis, Miss hasn't a clue about the status of her project. She laughs wryly over the phone: "Unfortunately, I wish I knew. I'm about in the same state I was the last time I was in St. Louis. This complex group of people trying to bring this all together are still congregating and trying to figure out what's happening. It's beyond me."

Part of what has kept the project on hold, however, is what the GSA's Susan Harrison refers to as "exuberance" — in this case, an exuberance that has taken a federally owned one-block site, with a budget of some $600,000, and transformed it into a three-block, $3 million-$8 million project.

Harrison, reached at her office in Washington, D.C., doesn't sound the least bit alarmed, although it has been four years since Miss received the original commission. Working in a department that's overseeing some 90 federal arts projects at one time, Harrison keeps a cool head. "These projects all blow up at some point," she blithely remarks, "for a jillion reasons." The St. Louis project isn't near the detonation point, in Harrison's view. Harrison doesn't complain about the delay but, rather, speaks of the project as a possible new model for the creation of public art in America. "What we're trying to do in St. Louis is quite extraordinary," she says. "It's an art project that encompasses more than just the land of the federal government. It's designed to enhance the quality of that part of St. Louis and help with its revitalization.

"The federal government likes to build in downtown areas and in areas that need redevelopment," Harrison continues. "This project is extraordinary in that regard because it's looking to give something back to both the city of St. Louis and, in particular, that neighborhood."

As upbeat as Harrison sounds, locally there has been grumbling among a few arts administrators, as well as a few local patrons. In these closed circles, Miss is being described as difficult. Isn't one block and more than half-a-million dollars enough? Miss' "exuberance" has complicated what many hoped was a done deal.

Miss explains the need for an extension of the project in terms of scale and optimal impact. The Eagleton Courthouse is now the biggest pink edifice on the block, and the space allotted for art, a slim block on the east face of the building, to Miss "was so minimal that it could barely be effective. Also, the budget was — though a very generous amount of money in terms of traditional artwork — if somebody's trying to make a public space, it was not enough money to do that easily."

So Miss, in her self-defined artist-as-explorer role, chose to venture off-site, combining public and private interests. She proposed extending the project north to the Gateway Mall and south to the Cupples Station/Westin Hotel development. Part of her motivation was "to take into consideration the highway ramps (off Clark), because otherwise they would be overwhelming the project, so I wanted to adapt them and make them function as part of the area."

This method of including all the variables at a proposed site, rather than neglecting or ignoring what might be considered unattractive, is typical of Miss' approach to public art. But with this project, that has meant gaining approval, and investment, from outside the traditional "public" sector.

"There was a great interest in this approach," Miss continues, "but of course it called for additional funding. It wasn't clear whether that money would be raised or not, but people liked the idea enough that they went to a couple of the foundations in town, as well as NationsBank, which is the owner of the northernmost block, and talked with these different people about coming up with the additional money it would take to do this.

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