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Is Public Better?

A report from the University of Chicago concludes that the city's public art program could be better off private.

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When the mayor introduced a skunk of a revision to the public art ordinance this spring and the City Council took a deep breath and adopted it, there was the usual five minutes of outrage. The revised ordinance pushed the public out of the public art program with all the subtlety of bulldozers cruising Meigs Field, usurping every bit of citizen decision-making power and, even more alarming, dispensing with the public's right to observe the process. In the future, decisions about public art in Chicago will be made by bureaucrats flying under the radar of the state's open-meetings law. What could be more blatantly objectionable?

But the working draft of a new study from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago argues that the mayor was on the right track when he dumped the open-meetings requirement. Graduate student Sarah Anzia, who looked at the public art program over an 18-month period and compared it to programs in other cities, says the open meetings were squelching honest discussion and needed to be sacrificed--though not quite the way the mayor did it.

If you're taking away public scrutiny, Anzia says in her report, "Beyond the Battlefield," it's important to put members of the public in charge. The city's insisting that its changes will increase public participation in a program often criticized as insular, but Anzia doesn't think so. "Proposing increased centralization in response to accusations of overly-centralized decision-making processes is illogical," she writes. Unless, of course, that wasn't the true impetus. She argues that although the new ordinance "has the potential to make the program legally invincible, it would definitely not make it a better public art program."

A River Forest native and a dancer (Ruth Page student, former member of the Oakland Ballet), Anzia completed a master's degree at the U. of C. in June and will head to Stanford next month to begin work on a PhD in political science.

She says she undertook the extracurricular study (funded with a small stipend) at the center's suggestion, thinking it would be worth doing because most of the recent attention given the program focused on the lawsuits brought against it without much examination of the program's structure. Drawing on public records and interviews with major players, including artists too fearful to be named, she concluded that the public art program as it stood was "beyond recovery."

Almost everything about this system, which relied on a standing Public Art Committee that oversaw smaller panels appointed for each project, had gone wrong. The 29-year-old program never had a mission statement, making it nearly impossible to evaluate performance, Anzia says. And it suffered from a leadership vacuum. The Public Art Committee was supposed to be responsible for all operations, but the government officials who held 11 of the committee's 17 seats rarely showed up at the meetings--"they didn't know or care about art and they sent proxies," Anzia says. "And even the six artists on the committee didn't show up all the time. PAC was a rubber-stamp entity."

The program purported to select artists through a democratic "open competition," but panel members who were supposed to do a comprehensive review of the city's artists' registry in order to select candidates found it daunting, Anzia says.

The registry consisted of "an old computer and a thousand files," and "you'd have to hunt through the file folders to find images." She says panel meetings she attended were dominated by the staff project manager, who, she was told, had come to an earlier meeting with 20 or 30 slides and by default established the pool of artists for consideration.

Anzia says most cities conduct an open call for every big-ticket arts project, and their requests for proposals include detailed descriptions and criteria. Then a panel considers hundreds of submissions. Anzia finds it ironic that Chicago's public art staff rejects this process as too burdensome, even though they follow it for the CTA's Arts in Transit, a federally funded program the city's paid to administer. "It remains a mystery why the Chicago Public Art Program has managed to conduct an RFQ [request for qualifications] and run meetings efficiently for CTA but has not done the same for its own projects," she writes.

Anzia does buy into another of the city's questionable claims, however: the argument that public discussion should be abandoned because it might stifle debate. In a close-knit art community, she says, no one wants to go on record dissing a colleague's work. She offers as a better model Portland, Oregon, which started with a system similar to Chicago's and "transitioned" into nonprofit administration. As a nonprofit, she writes, the Portland program does not have to "send out notices, distribute agendas, or post minutes. . . . As a result, deliberation about artists and artwork is kept behind closed doors." But the Portland selection committee is made up almost entirely of volunteers--artists serving limited terms--not, as the new arrangement in Chicago has it, a permanent roster of city staffers.

Anzia recommends that Chicago turn administration of its program over to a nonprofit while transforming the PAC into a committee of arts professionals allowed to deliberate in private. Her other recommendations include writing a mission statement (with public input), keeping the advisory panels (good on paper but badly run), and--this is urgent--updating and digitizing the slide registry.

According to Anzia, the revised ordinance doesn't address the structural problems she found in the program, and certainly won't solve the problem of artists "thinking they don't have a chance unless they've made a connection with a city official." With the exception of minor improvements (like a requirement to return rejected maquettes), she says, "the new ordinance is a step backwards and more of a response to the lawsuits, protecting the program from further legal assaults rather than saying 'OK, what are we doing wrong here and what can we do better.'"

The Story of the Spindle

Berwyn's iconic Spindle is public but not a piece of public art. It was commissioned by shopping center magnate David Bermant, who paid California artist Dustin Shuler $75,000 to get it up at Cermak Plaza in 1989. Bermant has gone to the big parking lot in the sky, but he's still explaining it for you (it was good for business, and that's his BMW right under the Beetle) at davidbermantfoundation.org. Berwynites hated it on sight--maybe because Bermant had already graced that parking lot with a three-story wall of junk called Big Bil-Bored. That one came down years ago, and the car kabob is about to meet the same fate, making way for another icon, a freestanding Walgreens. Members of Save the Spindle (savethespindle.com) hope it can be resurrected nearby. If so, Shuler, still a struggling artist, says he'll have to be in the driver's seat. Contrary to recent reports, two other works by Shuler--Pinto Pelt, a skinned car, and Albatross, a glider perched on top of a pole--are still on view in the parking lot, free for the looking.

Upgraded

Ravinia sold 500 lawn tickets at a record $100 each for space in front of a video screen for last weekend's Placido Domingo gala, then, according to a spokesman, realized that short of walling off the north lawn there was no way to make the view exclusive. Those 500 got bumped up to the Pavilion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sara Anzia photo by Robert Drea.

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