Mark McMahon’s signature appears on tile murals at O’Hare International Airport, the Tribune Company’s Freedom Center printing plant, and a parking garage at Van Buren and Federal. But the Lake Forest artist also put his name on a lawsuit filed last June in the U.S. District Court, alleging that the city of Chicago contracted him to create a series of ceramic panels for the Riverwalk Gateway mural project but then awarded the commission to another artist. Ellen Lanyon, a former Chicagoan who now lives in New York, two weeks ago finished installing the panels in a passageway beneath Lake Shore Drive near the Chicago River. Her work (which will be dedicated June 24) traces the river’s history from early explorations to current cleanup efforts. Yet McMahon could be the one cleaning up: his $3.3 million suit alleges breach of contract and “defamation and/or commercial disparagement,” based on comments made during a closed-door meeting of the public art committee for the Department of Cultural Affairs.

According to McMahon’s suit, city officials asked him to submit a proposal in May 1998, and he presented a package to the Chicago Department of Transportation, the project director. McMahon quoted a price of $317,521, and about a month later was notified by phone that he’d been “awarded the contract” to create 28 panels. He was given a purchase-order number and was asked to submit an invoice to CDOT for the first of three fee installments, which he did. With an April 1999 deadline, says McMahon, he immediately began to create drawings of the panels, city scenes tied in with the theme of the river and lake. He regularly apprised CDOT and project architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of his progress, but by early July the public art program had intervened. McMahon’s suit says that director Mike Lash asked McMahon to submit his 18 completed drawings to a project advisory panel, and McMahon agreed, though he explained that he already had an agreement with the city. At a July 24 meeting at City Hall the eight-member panel, chaired by Lash, considered the proposals of seven artists. A partial transcript of the meeting is an exhibit in McMahon’s complaint.

McMahon and Lanyon emerged as the favorites, and in the frank discussion that followed, McMahon argues, several attendees “made numerous disparaging and reckless comments in the presence of…McMahon’s former, current, and potential clients.” At one point Lash remarked, “I think it would be really bad for us to make an instant landmark of a substandard artist.” Rolf Achilles (now director of the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows) likened McMahon’s city scenes to “somebody’s Sunday-afternoon snapshots” and praised Lanyon’s more static images, arguing that McMahon’s imagery “is dated the second he has taken the photograph. All of the people are wearing clothes from the Gap or Wal-Mart of last week.” Representatives from Skidmore and CDOT argued for McMahon, but Lash and Achilles favored Lanyon, describing her work as “visionary” and “surrealistic.” Her national renown and her artistic influence in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s helped. But as the transcript reveals, political correctness figured in as well. “Politically, putting another white male in Chicago’s downtown is an error,” said Lash, citing a lack of women artists in the city’s public art collection. “If you want to talk any kind of affirmative action or moving into the next century…there [is] a lot of bad press that we could gain by putting a second-rate white male artist in this site.”

The public art director also explained the philosophy behind his choice: “When was the last time that anybody stopped and contemplated the Picasso, which is one pretty serious sculpture….Public art doesn’t do that big socialist thing that everybody thought it would do in the 30s, 40s, 50s….It doesn’t make that kind of huge social change….Public art acts as an information center. Rats who live in interesting cages live longer and are happier….I mention this every time because I feel that it is the quality of life in Chicago. And you can actually prove that about rats.”

After a vote the commission was awarded to Lanyon; the cost of the project was later scaled down to $190,000 (Lanyon created only 16 narrative panels; the remaining 12 are decorative). In October 1998 the city offered McMahon a settlement based on an hourly rate for a month and a half of work; instead he sued for $3 million in damages plus full payment for the project.

“The fact he submitted an invoice doesn’t mean he had a contract,” says Jennifer Hoyle, spokesperson for the city’s law department. “CDOT had never told him he had a contract. He was involved mainly as a consultant. He was brought in by [Skidmore] to discuss the feasibility of the mural. CDOT talked with him about the creation of the mural, but always in the context of ‘If you are the person chosen to do this.’ In the context of city purchasing work, there’s simply no such thing [as a] verbal contract.” CDOT, she adds, “recognized all along” that McMahon’s project had to be vetted by Cultural Affairs. But in a deposition given earlier this year Lash said he’d been aware CDOT had chosen McMahon. Lash undertook to have McMahon “unchosen” (the deposing attorney’s word).

“That happens sometimes–a favorite going in doesn’t always win,” Lash now says. “The only people that can sole-source public art contracts is the Department of Cultural Affairs, and he had no contract, written or verbal or anything, with [us].” Projects have to go through the purchasing department for bid proposal, he says, and McMahon’s never did. McMahon declined to comment, pending litigation. “He knows he’s cutting his throat,” says a source. “But he didn’t want to let [the city] go for what they did.” A trial date has been set for early November.

Lewis Lazare is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.