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.

"It really petered out after a while, and nothing seemed to be coming of it. The development of the Cupples Warehouse became an active, real project, with a hotel planned for that southern end. I think the developers of the hotel realized they needed to have something happening in this space for it to really come together and happen as a development project. That's when I was in town with Richard Baron (Cupples' primary developer), starting last May about a year ago. The project came alive again at that point. There were subsequent meetings over the summer about how this would happen. NationsBank has always been a prominent player in this and was — the first time around — very supportive of the idea and willing to participate. But it was a matter of getting the other pieces in place.

"That's my version," Miss laughs, "or as much as I understand."

New territory

"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?”

Meetings have been planned; meetings have been canceled. The project remains on hold. Miss uses a swimming analogy to describe her strategy for enduring in the public realm: "It's like you're jumping into a very fast-moving river and trying to get to the other side without you or your ideas being washed away. And believe me, my swimming muscles have been highly developed over the years. In spite of that, I frequently don't get to the other side." As she extends the metaphor further, she begins to laugh: "I find myself downriver, gurgling."

The GSA's regional director in Kansas City, Linda Phillips, says, in regard to a timetable, "It can't go in until the trailers are gone," meaning that as long as courthouse construction is delayed, Miss' project stays on hold. "It's a lovely proposal and a lovely idea," she adds, but the additional funding sources are no more fully realized than the native grasses and trees in the center of the urban corridor.

With St. Louis on hold, Miss has two projects in different stages of development. A commission for a subway station in New York is finally coming to fruition — she's been involved in that project since 1993 — and she's designing a half-mile stretch of river walk in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee River project involves "this old industrial river in this old section of the city. They built a river walk through the downtown area, and it's very corporate, formal. This next section is going into this old warehouse area. It starts out under this huge double highway, going out because all the buildings go straight to the river, so the walkway needs to be out over the river, actually. What's interesting to me here is engaging all this infrastructure. Going under these two highways — what are you going to do? Right now, it's a big parking lot — nobody wants to proceed in this direction at all, because it's so daunting. Well, let's not have a parking lot there. Let's see if we can look at how this whole area used to be wetlands. Can we do something that's like a demonstration showing how a wetland works? Not that it's a re-creation of one; it's really like a diagram of how they function. Then, can we take people by this deep tunnel access point that's 300 feet deep and let them see into it? It's really trying to engage the infrastructure of the city.

"At the same time I'm really interested in making people aware of the river, where it comes from. I've been quite curious about how to do these demonstrations, such as stormwater-treatment projects. It's not just to be ecologically correct, it's that we have to redefine what this river can be for us. It's been all of these other things — it's been a place where the Pottawatomie were gathering wild rice in the early 17th century; then settlers came and filled this whole area in and built a city on top of it. What becomes a big shipping area becomes a big industrial area, which becomes a total waste river. Nobody can even stand to be near it. Those days are gone. What's it going to be in the future?

"If we don't figure it out, our possibilities are going to become more and more limited."

Miss confesses to some frustration with the locations her commissions take her: There's a whole other territory for artists to investigate. "One might do that just as easily with a shopping mall," she says. "I have to take what comes to me, for the most part. Unfortunately, most of the things are percent-for-art projects in connection with, say, this federal courthouse.

"But the really important questions are, how we begin to reclaim this territory, the public space? Public space is now shopping malls. Shopping malls are run by private security forces. They're not truly public, but they are where people gather. Parking lots are spaces people use; swap meets are places people go. I'm really curious about how we can affect and infiltrate and have something to do with those places.

"I may be very idealistic, thinking there's any way to affect those situations, because they're so tightly controlled. Developers know they can have so many square feet and so much light, so many elevators or escalators. It's a science. They've got it down tremendously pat. Maybe it's the parking lot (as an artist's entryway). I'm not sure where these points are. But it's about an investigation of how we're going to be making our places, our spaces."

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