People Who Need People

St. Louis ain't no cow town but it still produces its share of BS

Actually, most people who've left St. Louis recently, in an admittedly unscientific poll, say they miss the cheap drinks in bars, but that probably wouldn't have helped those grasping for a symbol, either.

"We're calling it The People Project. We have a clever line," Arneill bravely offers. "'It's the people you meet when you walk down the street.'" There's going to be a catalog, too, "called A Body of Work. We're doing some playful things like that."

In the official press release trumpeting The People Project, project co-chair Jim Buford, who as president and CEO of the Urban League closed down an art exhibition at the Vaughn Cultural Center for depictions of naked people a couple of years ago, says, "Of course it has to be people. What better symbol to represent the diversity and strength of our region?"

Of course, what the good committee members who are not having a cow are neglecting is that the fact that there are a number of people here doesn't exactly make St. Louis unique among cities.

But there is something of a perverse, even morose, sense to all this. Other cities are selecting animals that actually once upon a time wandered, if not down their thoroughfares, at least on the outskirts of the urban environment. A moose probably still shows up in Whitefish, Mont., now and then, looking for a photo op with Meryl Streep. But whether animals of the wild or those destined for slaughter, they're mostly gone, and their re-creation as art reveals a subliminal longing.

Now, in St. Louis, the species that has been exiting in droves since the 1950s is -- people. As Arneill suggests, part of the inspiration came from thinking about those who've left St. Louis behind. For those who are still here, there remain these ghostly traces: the bustling metropolis of 800,000 citizens gazing at shop windows, darting into a saloon for a view of the Cardinals game and a cold Falstaff, leaving office buildings and shoe factories, hopping onto the streetcar and heading to the brick two-story home and postage-stamp backyard.

Where are those people? The People Project retrieves them, or at least 200 androgynous ones.

The models being discussed include an adult figure, a child figure and a seated figure, all "larger than life." "We've talked to a lot of artists about this," says Arneill, "and they keep saying, 'We need a blank canvas, and we're going to interpret it.' So we're trying to make this basically as nondescript as possibly and really let the artist attack it."

Fiberglass is the material of choice, because "it stands up outdoors. It's easy to paint. If some artists want to, they can alter the sculpting of the object -- they can add things or shift arms, that kind of thing. It's a pretty easy, relatively inexpensive and light medium."

Arneill says he "wouldn't even venture a guess" at the cost of these fiberglass models, but he emphasizes that this is "a completely self-supporting project -- sponsorship will basically pay for it."

No sponsors have signed on as yet, but The People Project is still in the planning stages. Arneill outlines the plan like this: "We are actually going to make this a bi-state-region event, so all 12 counties are involved. These things will appear all over the area. The deal is that in about a month we will release a request for proposals, or a call to artists. They will submit their design proposals, which will go into a portfolio pool, and then sponsors for the objects -- we're not saying we're going to sell these things; we're basically going to rent or adopt these things for about five months. A sponsor can come along and say, 'We'll take three of these things,' and then they have two choices: They can look through our portfolio and select artists that way, or, if they want, they can go to, say, Peter Max in New York City" and hire him. "They can commission it and still just buy our things basically at cost; then they negotiate their deal with outside artists. So artists even in town could, if they were really aggressive, go around and market themselves if they want to."

Anyone can submit an idea, says Arneill, but he or she should be able "to demonstrate somehow that they can pull it off."

The people will take to the streets in April 2001 and remain into the fall. RAC and Focus are working on merchandising ideas -- T-shirts, hats -- and the sculptures will finally be auctioned, with the money "given back to the arts -- and I can't be more specific than that," Arneill says.

However, every design must go through the committee for approval. This is public art, and you know how people are.

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