Post-public Art: the Hidden Underside

Bureaucracy and the De-glamorization of an Artistic Process

by Lori Kay

Early October, in the midst of a crying fit on the floor of my studio-garage, I was interrupted by a telephone call from Karen Haas asking me to write an article about the "glamorous" life of a public artist. I imagined Karen felt that I was well-qualified to discuss the matter as I had both commissions and exhibits in the public realm. At that moment I felt that the most glamorous part of my life was my beautiful underwear. On that day, I was wrestling with the darker side of my glamorous life.

Earlier in the year I was part of a national outdoor sculpture exhibition in the Pacific Northwest. The show was excellent; I was in good company, the site was beautiful with a heavy flow of urban, pedestrian traffic. The press coverage, catalog, appreciative public, elegant openingwhich included a string orchestra and $1,000 honorariumwere all great. Now in early October, the show was over, and I was faced with a problematic de-installation and the disappointment that my sculpture was not one of five that the city purchased.

The contract necessitated site restoration which included removing the sculpture and 150-pound concrete foundation, disposal of the foundation, refilling the hole (including finding the dirt for filling) and re-graveling the walkway. Unfortunately, the arrangements I had previously made to use a boom and forklift had fallen through, and I was having difficulty imagining how to remove the cement foundation from the ground. I was doubtful that I could physically operate a jackhammer. To complicate matters further, I was flying and therefore limited on what equipment I could bring with me. After visions of my shovel jamming the baggage chute, I asked the city if I could at least borrow a shovel. I received a polite no. The city scheduled de-installation for two days only, and the shipping company needed 24 hours advance notice to pick up the crated sculpture, so there were serious time constraints.

There were other concerns. I was anxiety-ridden that the hard thing I had drilled into during installation was possibly a pipe that would spew water or sewage when I removed the piece. The condition of the shipping crate I had left in the rain for months, if it still existed, was unknown, as was the damage to the sculpture and base incurred by two theft attempts in the heavily-patrolled park. All of which led to my melt-down on the day that Karen phoned.

By sharing this public art experience (one of the easiest, in fact) I hope to convey that creating public art can be both positive and negativeat times overwhelmingly challenging. Yet I continue to dream of working on larger and more complex public art projects. Making art is about taking risks, and public art simply turns up the volume of art and risk-taking.

The drawbacks and obstacles of public art are numerous. Content and media are often limited. Physicality can be an issue. There is more time spent on the business of art than creating the art. Fear of losing my artist self to a stressed-out project manager is a recurring nightmare. Difficulties with scheduling and cash flow from delays in construction, and miscommunication with city officials who ignore you and direct all discussion to your subcontractors can be frustrating. Lack of public appreciation and understanding of the effort that went into creating the work can be discouraging. Panelist committee/council members who insist on design, color, installation changes or modifications can be a significant drawback. Public art is about compromise and walking the fine line of not being labeled a difficult artist while retaining the integrity of the work.

Which leads to rejection...any way you look at it, rejection is hard to swallow. I have different strategies to deal with rejection: saving letters in a file, commending myself for how hard I work, knowing that I cant be considered unless I submit a proposal, chalking up how many times Ive been a finalist, saying Im getting closer and learning along the way how to improve my proposals. If all else fails, I treat myself to chocolate, ice cream, books or lingerie, sometimes all of the above. I visualize the selection process as a water wheelmy turn will come.

So why do I choose to create public art? I need to communicate. I feel my work comes alive when visible, asleep when in storage. Watching people, especially children, interact with the art brings satisfaction. Public art is accessible, which takes some of the elements of elitism out of art.

The work also becomes part of the visual history of the community. I feel I am in a continuum of art history in the field of public art, with a rich, full history of artists preceding me and many artists yet to come. There is an element of public art that is public service. At the very least the work exposes the public to art, broadening environments and transforming space. I hope that as I grow as an artist I will be instrumental in the movement to change the definition of public art. Safe art, art that is basically decorative, sometime referred to as drive-by art, or plop art (i.e. just deposited on a site without consideration of the environment, architecture or space usage), will give way to art with strong content, integrated at the beginning stages into a design to create a cohesive environment.

Some budgets are substantial. Conversely so is the competition. The money allows freedom to focus on one piece, to work on a large scale that you cannot otherwise afford, to use new expensive material and to change media.

The demands of public art foster the growth of a renaissance woman. Each site and each sculpture bring unique challenges and solutions. Public art brings together skills used in management, engineering, production, art law, technique, bookkeeping, proposal writing, presentation, archiving, educating/advocating for all art, public relations and promotion. Acknow-ledgement in the form of you have arrived press builds reputation and creates the all-important track record which leads to consideration on larger projects. For example, I was recently approached by a philanthropic foundation to fund my next project. I am sure this would not have happened without having work visible.

Working in the public art arena has been arduous. I am more confident and competent from going through the process. One interesting habit I noticed about myself which seems to preserve my femininity and create a balance: the more I live in grubby work clothes, welding leathers and heavy work boots, the more beatup my hands, the sexier and more delicate my lingerie becomes.

Public ArtWhose Art?

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