Sculptor Dennis Adams’s Bad Idea

When New York artist Dennis Adams arrived in Chicago in the spring of 1995, he walked down Madison Street along the edge of Garfield Park and took photos of the various storefronts and their signs advertising everything from clothing to funeral services. Adams had been commissioned by Sculpture Chicago to collaborate with a group of community residents on the creation of a public artwork that would be installed in the park this summer.

Adams noticed that the shopkeepers took chairs outside to enjoy the warm weather, but they always sat with their backs to the park. He came up with the idea of reproducing the different signs along Madison and building tables and benches out of these reproductions. He says the signs, many of them handpainted, included a variety of images, ranging from portraits of Malcolm X to pictures of items for sale in the stores. Adams wanted community leaders to use the tables to distribute pamphlets about neighborhood events to passersby. He even hired a local sign painter to work on the project, but that’s as far as it got. The proposed piece, titled Resale (Border Spill), was ultimately rejected by the committee of community members he’d worked with for several months. “They couldn’t get beyond the images that I was proposing to paint on the tables,” Adams says, “many of which I thought were quite beautiful.”

Sculpture Chicago managing director Karen Paluzzi Steele says it’s common for such projects to come to naught, because artists and community residents often have conflicting views about both the role of art and the character of a neighborhood. Sculpture Chicago, a not-for-profit organization,was founded in 1983 to initiate programs that would put artists directly in touch with the public. Adams was one of four artists named last January to develop works for this year’s “Re-inventing the Garden City” project. (The other artists were selected for projects in Washington Square Park, Union Park, and Humboldt Park; this Saturday, from 11 AM to 3 PM, Sculpture Chicago will provide a shuttle bus linking the three sites.)

Garfield Park, the site for Adams’s proposal, is in the midst of a predominantly African-American community on the city’s west side. The strip along Madison that Adams wanted to document had been named a redevelopment area by the city (a designation that used to be more bluntly called “slum and blighted”), and many of the buildings that he photographed a year ago have since been demolished.

Like the other artists involved in “Re-inventing the Garden City,” Adams worked with a group of community residents and Chicago Park District supervisors and staff members. According to Steele, the project committee had several goals. “The committee members were supposed to establish a dialogue with the artist to better understand the creative process, and become spokes-people for the project, and finally see the project through to completion.”

But in Adams’s case, the process backfired. “Dennis seemed to be a renowned artist, but nobody liked the project,” says committee member Gwen O’Connor-Griffin. Levette Haynes, an artist and the executive director of the West Side Cultural Arts Council, adds, “We didn’t want peopleto see ‘slum and blighted’ as a reflection of our community.

Wewanted something to be proud of.” O’Connor-Griffin believes the work was intendedto draw on the disparity between the beautyof Garfield Park and the often ramshackle storefronts directly across the street, an image of the neighborhood that she says has been portrayed ad nauseam by the media. “I didn’t think that message needed to be duplicated.” O’Connor-Griffin says she and other committee members would have liked an installation that addressed the community’s pride in the park. “The work didn’t really say anything about the culture or history of the park.”

Adams says the project would havegone differently if he’d been allowed to install Resale (Border Spill) before committeemembers passed judgment. “I don’t believe a committee should dictate the content of a work of art,” he says. “They were really just speculating about what the work was, and sometimes it’s so easy for people to get hooked by an image.”

High Culture High

Though audiences for high culture are reportedly in decline, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra can crow about its just-concluded season at Orchestra Hall. Total attendance was 289,562, or 99.3 percent of capacity. The previous record attendance of 285,623 was set during the 1992-’93 season. Revenue from ticket sales also increased 8.4 percent over last season to end at $14.2 million. The orchestra pulled in a record number of concertgoers without shying away from contemporary works. The American Society of Composers and Performers (ASCAP) cited the CSO as the nation’s champion of the new: out of all the orchestras in the U.S., it presented the greatest number of contemporary works during the 1995-’96 season.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.