Getting Stiffed 

Public art comes at a price, whether it's wooden mannequins or metal gates

Meanwhile, back at the other local public-art fiasco, the People Project, a notice just arrived in the mail announcing a mannequin-liquidation sale. With 180 people figures cluttering the streets over the 12-county bistate region, each supported by an undercarriage of "unvarnished poplar," it turns out there are 200 of these mannequins left over. When the Regional Arts Commission and Focus St. Louis got together in this wild display of public-art exuberance, they estimated 400 mannequins would get decorated by local "creative agents" (which is what they call artists) and paid for by private and corporate sponsors (at approximately $5,000 per head) and installed all over -- from Wentzville to O'Fallon, from Clarksville to Affton.

For those of an age to remember Don Adams in Get Smart, they "missed it by that much." Even though the People Project's estimated budget (dated March 29, 2001) calls for 200 mannequins at a cost of $90,000 ($450 per unvarnished poplar), somewhere along the way they decided to go for the gusto and spent another 90 grand to fulfill that 400 people-figure goal. What the hell? It's all other people's money anyway.

Now comes the sober reality: What do you do with 200 6-foot-tall unvarnished-poplar mannequins with "fully pose-able joints and limbs, including fingers and toes" with "stand and hardware" included?

Step right up. At a "special liquidation price" of $375 each, "These mannequins are perfect for store and window displays, for added ambiance in restaurants and boutiques, and make an ideal gift for the executive who has everything! Designers, artists, photographers and art directors can utilize these high quality mannequins in a variety of creative ways," the People Project promotional flier reads.

Just imagine how an unvarnished poplar mannequin would add to the décor of Harvest or Grenache or a Courtesy Diner? If you're a high-flying CEO with the need to impress, just think of the reaction of your fellow high-flying CEOs when they step into your 20th-floor corner office and see a 6-foot-tall wooden mannequin. Don't let them know it was a steal.

But be sure to let them in on the mannequin's pedigree: "The People Project exhibit consists of 180 completed People Figures on display throughout the bi-state region, and each piece began with one of these mannequins."

Impressed? And how. "Now it's your turn to display your creativity and showcase your business with these beautiful mannequins." (People Project italics, honest.)

So don't wait. "Mannequins will be liquidated on a 'first come, first served' basis." The phone's probably ringing off the hook (314-531-5150, ext. 26) with calls from folks with $375 burning holes in their pockets, inspired to discover the "creative agent" within.

The balance sheet is not so artistic, though. Based on RAC's budget estimate for the People Project, each mannequin cost $450. So selling all 200 at $375 each would mean a $15,000 loss. Whether RAC is actually losing money on the fire sale is unclear; project director Porter Arneill didn't return calls seeking a clarification.

Meanwhile, back at the public-art fiasco du jour, the Forest Park gates, the problem has been less the conception than the presentation. The People Project was dumb from the start and continues to get dumber. Although the People Project ignored the public input it asked for (mules, catfish, shoes -- anything but people -- citizens responded), St. Louis City Parks and Recreation and Forest Park Forever are currently tabulating and assessing the hundreds of cards and letters they've received since the models for the gates were unveiled at the Missouri Historical Society in June. For sure, the parties involved in the design process with artist Lawrence Halprin were not prepared for the deluge of critical disdain and misinformation perpetrated on pieces of metal reminiscent of twisted oak branches or wisteria. The scenario smelled of the usual St. Louis closed-door, members-only stench. Moreover, the gates were, as they say in St. Louis, "different," easy for the mawkish to mock and, what with the parties involved in the nonpublic process, easy for pouncing on the cultural elite.

Yet underscoring the tirades over the gates is a profound anxiety concerning public art in America generally and in St. Louis specifically. Halprin spoke to this dilemma when he was contacted by the RFT. Richard Serra's "Twain" is the public art people most love to hate in St. Louis. Even though Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch is the emblem of the city to outsiders, "Twain" demarcates the cultural battleground locally.

"Serra is an important artist," Halprin acknowledges, discussing a drive he took through downtown during an onsite visit, "but part of the problem in that case may well be that there's no way for people to interact with it. On the other hand, that same afternoon we went by the great fountains by [Union Station], the [Carl] Milles. That's a great piece of public art. I think it's one of the important pieces of public art in the country. I think people are starting to understand that Saarinen's Arch is important on a different scale.

"Now it's too bad that one piece of art like Serra's can spoil the playground for everybody else. It doesn't mean that public art is not good. It's neither good nor bad nor indifferent. It's what you make out of it, both the artists and what the people who are using it make out of it."

The engagement between the art and the public needs to be the primary concern and fixes all other concerns in perspective. A major criticism of the gates has been the supposed $6 million price tag. (That sum approximates the cost of the gates as a whole but excludes other work that will have to be done -- "lighting and pumps and water connections and things like that, because we haven't gotten to that," Halprin explains.) "That's not something the public is paying for," Halprin exclaims testily. "Why would anybody think that was a lot for what these are giving the city? I'm appalled at that kind of statement, particularly since they're not paying for it. It's not money that's being diverted from some other use."

This isn't the stadium deal, for pity's sake. It's not even the People Project, which has diverted RAC's stretched resources for 18 months on a misbegotten lark. Liquidation sale, indeed! Gateway Alliance has already signed on to pay for one of the gates. Anabeth Weil of Parks and Rec says she's heard from two other prospective donors. The gates, inevitably, would be a gift to the citizens of St. Louis, if they can accept it.

Halprin chuckles at the derision he's received for being an out-of-towner foisting his vision on the locals. Forest Park was the home of the World's Fair, remember, bringing cultures from near and far to the Middle West. "These are gates, again," he says. "I don't want to seem immodest, but if they thought I could do something wonderful, what difference does it make that I come from San Francisco?"

The gates hearken to the past as they place themselves in the imagined future. As citizens of St. Louis caught in the thin present, there needs to be a sense of humility of our own perspective in judging the gates. They're less for us than they are for the limitless future. That's the real dilemma of public art and the real complexity of assessment. It's not counting responses, yea or nay, at the offices of the Parks and Rec and Forest Park Forever. Do these gates have form and meaning and function that span beyond our time?

That's a question of ambition, a tough one for St. Louisans. The People Project fails because it conceived of ambition in numbers (400 people figures, cultural tourism dollars) and not in import. Halprin's gates are ambitious on both the grandest and most intimate scales. Six million dollars (approximately) isn't a bad bet for perpetual engagement, especially with other people's money.

More by Eddie Silva

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    • Jan 22, 2003
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    Sue Eisler finds old shoe patterns in a Dumpster and makes them walk the artist's walk
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