Public Art Goes Public

“Whereas, the parties acknowledge that notwithstanding Plaintiff’s allegations that the City improperly expended public funds for public art at Gallery 37, the role of apprentice artists (including low income and minority students) in Gallery 37 installations does not detract from the aesthetic or economic value of those installations . . .”

Legal documents are often thorny, but this paragraph in the recent settlement of a lawsuit brought by attorney Scott Hodes against the city over its public art program is a real stumper. The settlement was a victory for Hodes: after two lawsuits and six years of litigation, the Department of Cultural Affairs agreed to adhere to the open meetings act and bring everything related to the purchase of public art out into the sunshine. “For the first time the artists’ community is really going to know what’s happening,” Hodes says. “I call this the artists’ bill of rights.” He says the issue skirted in the baffling paragraph above is what made it possible. He had never claimed that apprentice work detracts from the value of a piece of art. He had, however, alleged that the Department of Cultural Affairs unlawfully diverted money from the public art fund to Gallery 37 apprentice artists. He says the city didn’t want to go there and neither did he–but it did give him leverage.

“In order to effectuate these changes I had to put [the department] at risk,” Hodes says. “And the at-risk piece of that lawsuit was the nexus with Gallery 37.” He discovered it thanks to a suit he settled with the city three years ago. In that settlement Cultural Affairs agreed to publish an annual financial report for the public art program, which is funded–to the tune of millions–by a 1.33 percent share of the cost of all city building and remodeling projects. Hodes says when he began receiving the reports he noticed that money–about $100,000 in 2002–was being moved from the public art program into Gallery 37 (Maggie Daley’s pet program), where “they claimed some of it was [used] for teaching.” “We felt it was not inappropriate to employ apprentice artists to work alongside professional artists,” says Cultural Affairs spokesperson Kimberly Costello. But while teaching is admirable, Hodes says, “there’s no provision at all in the public art program to spend money to train artists.”

Under the terms of the new settlement, the city will open meetings of the once mysterious public art committee and its advisory panels to the public and will post meeting dates on its Web site in advance. It’s also required to post agendas at least 48 hours prior to meetings and post minutes, including a record of all votes–and voters–within seven days of each meeting. Within 30 days of the settlement the city is to begin posting lists of all planned commissions and purchases valued at more than $10,000, along with the stipulations, funding, and selection process. The city will also itemize the 20 percent of each project’s cost dedicated to administration and maintenance. And within 60 days the city is to adopt and post written program guidelines. The guidelines will explain criteria for the selection of committee and panel members, factors considered in selecting artwork, and information for artists on how to get their work into the program’s slide registry.

Hodes, a founder of Lawyers for the Creative Arts (and a lawyer in private practice whose client list includes Christo and Jeanne-Claude), says he became interested in the public art program in 1998 after a local artist asked if he knew how much money was in the fund. Published reports had set the value of the city collection as high as $50 million, Hodes says. “I knew this program had been going on since ’79 or ’80; I made an innocent inquiry to find out where all this art was. I found out they didn’t really know. Everything was on index cards, and index cards got lost.” Now, Hodes says, the record keeping is better, and with Greg Knight in charge (Knight took over for ousted public art chief Michael Lash last year) he expects things to be improved all around. But he says the one piece of reform that he most wanted to accomplish has eluded him. “I wanted to change the composition of the [public art] committee. There probably isn’t another city whose public art program is run by the government. The membership of our committee is 11 government officials and 6 private citizens–and that 6 used to be 4.” Hodes says he thinks Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg “threw me a bone” and “thought I’d go away” when just two more citizens were added a year and a half ago.

The settlement leaves Hodes–who was represented by attorneys from the Better Government Association–in the position of watchdog. “They wanted me to agree that I would not sue them for violations of this program in the future,” he says. “I refused. If they don’t do it correctly, they’ll be hearing from me again.”

A Token in the Park

Among Hodes’s beefs about how the city treats its artists is one about Millennium Park. “The city had an opportunity to really do something for local artists there,” he says. “Did they? No.” But he may have been tossed another bone. Two weeks ago the city opened a visitors’ center in the Exelon Pavilion–the little corporate showplace just west of the Harris Theater–with the first permanent Millennium Park installation by Chicago artists. Heliosphere–Biosphere–Technosphere, by Adelheid Mers and Patrick McGee, consists of three mirrored disks visible from the street that light up at night and digitally display the amount of electricity generated by solar panels on the building’s surface (supposedly enough to run three Chicago homes). Millennium Park design director Ed Uhlir says park officials suggested to Exelon last winter that it might be nicer to have work by Chicago artists than the expanded Museum of Science and Industry-style energy exhibit that had been planned for the space. Mers and McGee and three other artists were chosen from the public art registry to submit proposals for the project, the total cost of which was $65,000. After the husband-and-wife team won the commission, they had about six weeks to build it. Uhlir says the project was fast-tracked. “Exelon paid; it wasn’t part of the public art program.”

Hey, the Help Didn’t Mind

One advantage of the TV-screen-at-every-table arrangement at Improv Kitchen is that the improvisers, working in a studio next door, are at a safe remove from customers who don’t like the show. Czerina Salud went to the Kitchen last month with a few friends and was dismayed when the improv team picked up on an audience suggestion that they take off on “Sucky, sucky, five dollar.” Salud, who is Asian, says when she complained that the bit was offensive she was told by a manager, “You’re not the only person of color here. I have Mexicans and Asians in the kitchen.” Improv Kitchen owner Jim Mayhercy, who says he’s never had a complaint about the show’s content before, dropped the cover charge for Salud’s group but says, “She shouldn’t be going to improv shows if something like that bothers her. I’ve been to a thousand shows where I heard far worse than that. This is art, it’s off-the-top-of-your-head performance, and what happens isn’t always to everyone’s liking. It goes where it goes. And the audience suggested it. You can’t censor that.”

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