The Perils of Public Art

On August 16, nearly five years after the city of Evanston commissioned artist Lincoln Schatz to create a $170,000 sculpture for its Maple Avenue parking garage, Evanston officials will finally dedicate the resulting work. It won’t, however, be the cluster of giant Plexiglas disks Schatz proposed five years ago–and it’s not located anywhere near the garage. Though Schatz was advanced $51,000 for the commission, a couple years into the project (and, Schatz says, after many city delays) he informed officials that neither the size nor the budget would work. Evanston asked for its money back; Schatz, who’d incurred expenses, said no, and both sides called in their lawyers. Late last year the standoff was settled: the city’s public art committee picked one of three existing Schatz sculptures as a substitute and he was allowed to keep the advance. Their selection, called Penelope, is a modest clump of four Plexiglas panels rimmed with steel. It stands partially obscured by a bush on a spit of parkway at the heavily trafficked corner of Ridge and Emerson, looking like a distant cousin of the rusty Metra viaduct nearby. Public Art Committee member Laura Saviano says the piece has received a number of compliments; she was shocked when some city council members used the U word to describe it. The dedication comes as Evanston debates its next art commission: a $300,000 doodad for Sherman Plaza.

It’s a tough job, being the designated shopper. Evanston’s public art ordinance, in place since ’91, mandates that up to 1 percent of the budget for any city building costing over $1 million be spent on “associated” art. That’s produced periodic cash infusions that send volunteer selection panels off on commission missions–with strings attached. Public Art Committee cochair Gerry Macsai notes, for example, that Penelope had to be located within the downtown TIF district where the garage was built even though other areas of the city had better sites for it. And once the art is up, there’s no guarantee it will be maintained or embraced. Take Aqua Vita, a whimsical installation by Donna Zarbin-Byrne at the fire station at 1332 Emerson. The multipart work of bronze, concrete, earth, and plants sits in a state of scraggly neglect smack in front of the firehouse door. Artists Adelheid Mers and Patrick McGee worked with firefighters at another station, at 1105 Central, reviewing thousands of photographs in order to select one for each of eight aluminum panels they planned to erect on the station’s outside wall. They chose dramatic images of historical and contemporary firefighters, including some who died in the line of duty. But the finished piece is as murky as a smoke-filled stairwell, the images reduced to mostly incomprehensible blotches.

Saviano says the hassles encountered with almost every project have convinced the Public Art Committee that they need to spend more time educating the public, not only about each piece but about “what public art is and how we get it.” They’ve recently published a public art map and launched a nonprofit fund-raising organization, Friends of the Arts, which so far has collected about $25,000 toward acquisitions that could go to other parts of the city.

In addition the committee has $117,000 left over from the Schatz project. But the group’s focus now is on Sherman Plaza, a 25-story downtown condominium that will have a city parking garage and the $300,000 public art project attached. The city handled the advertising for the commission, and a sparse response has committee members wondering if the ads went out too close to the May deadline. “We only got seven proposals this time,” Saviano says, whereas the garage project drew hundreds of inquiries and 33 proposals from “all around the world.” Nevertheless, the selection panel has whittled the seven down to three and paid those artists $2,500 each to create and present models, which they reviewed last month. They’re now down to two finalists but have qualms that are keeping Macsai up at night.

“It’s a great deal of money, and it’s not my money,” she says. “If these aren’t bowling us over, I’d argue we’d better get something that does.” After the Schatz dedication on Tuesday, the panel will meet to reconsider what it’s got. “We always have the option of starting all over,” Macsai says.

Who Owns an Unwanted Mural?

Artist Laura Gilmore has been scrambling to find a new home for the 900-square-foot mural she spent months creating earlier this year for a restaurant that never opened at 13031 S. Western in Blue Island. The mural, 11 feet high and about 90 feet wide, is a 30-panel showbiz wall of fame, including everybody from B.B. King to Richard Pryor to James Dean to Nas. When Gilmore learned a few weeks ago that new tenants didn’t want it in their condominium sales office and were planning to put drywall or wallpaper over it, she panicked, then turned to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, which hooked her up with Wayne Tang of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. LCA director William Rattner says that even when an artist has been paid for work, “under the Visual Artist’s Rights Act, which is part of U.S. copyright law, the work cannot be mutilated or destroyed without giving the artist an opportunity to go in and take it out.” Now, Gilmore says, some of the pressure’s off: it looks like the tenant will drape or screen the mural, giving her up to a year to find a new home for it–preferably in Blue Island, she says, where “there’s a lot of support.” Gilmore, who adds that she was paid for only a fraction of her work, values the mural at $30,000. She’d like to find a buyer, but is “willing to let it go for much less” to anyone who’ll take it down, truck it off, and let it be seen.

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