People Who Need People

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

"Animals are passing from our lives," wrote the poet Philip Levine, a line that has some resonance amid the recent phenomena of sculpted animals' taking to the streets as public-art projects in urban metropolises. Zurich started the fad with some 800 fiberglass cows, accessorized by artists and herded along the Swiss boulevards. Then Lois Weisberg, Chicago's commissioner of cultural affairs (a title that sounds disturbingly akin to "arts czar," that grand cultural pooh-bah the St. Louis 2004 consultants think this city needs), brought Cows on Parade to the Windy City, attracting thousands and -- according to the sorts of estimates that figure the Rams brought more than $100 million in revenue to the city last year -- generated more than $200 million in tourist dollars.

Now there are cows arriving in New York City, pigs in Cincinnati, lizards in Orlando, fish in New Orleans and moose in Toronto and Whitefish, Mont. Weisberg has been the subject of a New Yorker profile and is described as a "Connector" in Malcolm Gladwell's intriguing new book about how trends become trendy, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Gladwell's theory is that trends or fads occur in the same way epidemics do. For example, if 1,000 people carry a flu virus, and each one comes in contact with some 50 people a day, the result is a relatively low-level flu outbreak. But if it's Christmas season, and those 1,000 people each come in contact with 55 people a day, an exponential spiral occurs, leading to a full-blown flu epidemic. "That moment when the average flu carrier went from running into 50 people a day to running into 55 people was the Tipping Point," writes Gladwell.

Trends, then, are like viruses, and Gladwell examines how they spread, be it the instantaneous fashionability of Hush Puppies shoes or the decline in crime in New York City. An element that moves trends along includes a "Connector." Connectors are the folks who bridge the gap between those six degrees of separation, "people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches." In Gladwell's scheme, Weisberg is a "classic Connector" who, when Arthur C. Clarke visited Chicago in the 1950s, managed to hook him up with a couple of like-minded guys, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

Folks such as Weisberg are not only "Connectors" but "connected." When a local businessman first broached the cows idea to associates, they scoffed. Weisberg told a writer for the Chicago Tribune, "I didn't laugh at him. I told him we'd do it." Somehow Weisberg must have intuited the possibilities. Animals are indeed passing from our lives, and just as the Industrial Revolution seeded a romantic return-to-nature movement, cows that once were driven to slaughter in the stockyards of the world return as kitsch: likable, photographable, colorful, non-scatalogical.

Weisberg was not available to comment on the epidemic, or fad, she has helped spread. She has shown public dismay at New York's approach to Cows on Parade, with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani promising to "outdo Chicago." In a letter that the New York Times chose not to print, Weisberg complained: "You can imagine our city's response to the idea of New York outdoing Chicago, especially since we had just sent six of our precious cows to your city in an effort to help launch the press conference.... Competition among cities who have no reason to outdo one another will spoil everything because it will surely result in commercialism and greed."

The Second City was indeed first on this one, so it would have been interesting to hear Weisberg's reaction to St. Louis' choice of temporary sculpted icon: people. Someone at the Chicago commissioner's office did manage to deadpan over the phone: "Oh, really."

St. Louis has had a helluva time with this concept. First, there's that inferiority complex toward that big city to the north. As envious as local "Connectors" were of Cows on Parade, and even though New York is imitating Chicago, St. Louis just can't. So the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) and Focus St. Louis got together with the campaign "St. Louis Ain't No Cow Town!" -- which sounds more defensive than promotional. Because the burghers in the special "Anything but a Cow Committee" couldn't come up with an appropriate icon for St. Louis, in a rare display of civic openness they called on the people to choose a symbol.

Apparently "the people" didn't do too well with this idea, either. "We listened to all these different responses," says RAC's Porter Arneill, "and, frankly, nothing really leapt off the page, so to speak." Among more than 1,200 responses, the suggestions included shoes, arches, airplanes, wagon wheels, Missouri mules and catfish. A list such as that one would probably dispirit most committees, and everybody would give up and go home, but not this group.

"We kept thinking, 'What can we do?'" says Arneill. "And we ran it by a lot of folks. It just kept coming up that people is really what this area is all about. When people leave St. Louis, when they're away, usually what they miss the most is the people. So we said, 'Let's do people."'

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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