My family had a house by Smith Park on what they sometimes now call the “near west side” on maps (for the record, some of the old timers called it “the Patch” when I was young, and at some point I heard a rumor that it was short for “a patch of Italians in the middle of everybody else” but let’s not go down that road too far right now). I don’t recall public art or statuary being a part of my neighborhood experience there but there was a decommissioned World War II-era U.S. Army tank and artillery device placed in the park sometime in the 50s, and I remember it being moved at some point to a newly created traffic slow-down median near the corner of Grand and Western.
Flash forward to the early ought-oughts (as Jethro Bodine might say) and I’m a grown-up lady Chicago creative type, collaborating with visual artists in a group called Temporary Services. In 2000, several of us noticed that the tank had been moved elsewhere and someone, presumably the city, had started installing what looked to be a series of metal poles on the traffic median. The install was super quick, with no signage, and seemingly overnight the corner of Grand and Western was now host to Episodic, a sculpture by Chicago artist Josh Garber. We all had our own opinions about the sculpture itself, but we were more concerned about the public process (or really, lack thereof) that had led to this piece of art landing in the neighborhood. We created a public work to reflect on this and gather opinions of other citizens who also traveled through the corner: Public Sculpture Opinion Poll, and gathered responses. During the same time, other people were questioning this process, and suggested that the decision-making process from the city’s Public Art Committee were in violation of Illinois’s Open Meetings Act.
Years later, we were invited to Sydney, Australia, to take part in an exhibition about housing, community organizing, and gentrification. We found a sculpture in an area called Redfern, a neighborhood that is part of the traditional lands of the Gadigal, the Indigenous people that originally inhabited that part of New South Wales. Our research and polling showed us that the sculpture had been installed in a similar “we don’t know where it came from” manner, and that many of the people who lived and worked around it had opinions about it as an object, a symbol, and what its placement meant to the neighborhood.
In the wee hours of the morning on Friday July 24, the city of Chicago started the removal process for two statues depicting Christopher Columbus; the official statement from the mayor said, in part, “This step is about an effort to protect public safety and to preserve a safe space for an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols.”
Here’s my opinion, based on both my experience studying what public art does and my experiences as both audience and artist: there should be no permanent public art but there should be more public art. I’m personally not interested in seeing statues of Columbus, George Washington, or other men whose poor choices and violent behavior have been lost in the history books over the centuries. But I think a framework for the public to understand what exactly public art is, and what it could do for us is in order. Public art is so much more than representational sculpture placed on a pedestal. Art is a reflection and gathering space for our thoughts and desires, and a place for us to work out our histories and create new futures. We would serve ourselves well as a city if we took this moment to rethink our own iconography—to talk about the disturbing and bad things that have happened in our pasts so that we can learn and grow. No one sculpture should ever stay on this earth forever, because to me, that means that the people around the sculpture never evolved, changed, or grew into the next level of understanding. More temporary public art, rotating public discourse and inviting our neighborhoods and tourists alike to really grasp the entirety of what being in this place means—and less stale thinking about what art is—will get us to the next steps.
Look at and listen:
- Back to Australia, I’m loving this new EP by the Melbourne noise-punk band MOTH.
- I have a memory of watching William Conrad’s character on the 70s detective TV show Cannon running after a suspect in the street and losing him because Cannon was too fat to scoot in between two parked cars. Does anyone else remember this sequence? I’m not sure if you can stream it, but Cannon apparently airs at 2 AM sometimes on MeTV.
Virtual and in-person events coming up: