A Post story not long ago reported on the efforts of a regional coalition to exhibit art in a number of Metro stations. On the face of it, this doesn't seem like a matter of great consequence. But it is indicative of growing local support for a phenomenon of national importance that is often highly controversial: art in public places.
The federal government, through the Art in Architecture program at the General Services Administration and the Art in Public Places Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, has been supporting the placement of art in public spaces for about 20 years. At last count, some 75 states, counties and cities -- notably Baltimore, Philadelphia and Seattle -- had ordinances that permitted up to one percent of their budgets for new construction to be spent on art.
Closer to home, the County Board of Arlington sponsored the creation of sculptor Nancy Holt's Dark Star Park in Rosslyn. Montgomery County has also weighed in with a percent-for-art program of its own and has allowed developers in Bethesda's booming center to increase density in exchange for public amenities, including art. The D.C. Convention Center is planning to relandscape the perimeter of the building and incorporate several sculpture commissions. And the District government is just now starting up an art-in-public-places program, which will soon begin making grants.
I have long been a proponent of these activities and have served on many juries to select artists for public commissions. I think the free-spirited exchange of ideas between artist and audience that occurs in the public space is of benefit to both and different from the more controlled experience available in the museum or the commercial gallery. There are other reasons for endorsing these programs: they provide opportunities for artists, they stimulate tourism and economic development generally, and they help promote civic pride.
Thus far, the most compelling rationale for art in public places has also proved the most elusive, however. This is the reintegration of the arts of painting, sculpture, architecture and landscape design, severed from each other in the modern era, with the aim of creating the most satisfying public environment possible. But the expressive aims of architects and artists are often at odds, a problem complicated at times by unresolvable differences in scale. Moreover, the forms of contemporary art are foreign to most of the public audience, who are accustomed to figure sculptures in public settings, but not much else. Add to this the inevitable number of failed attempts and the fact that some art is openly provocative, and you have a sure recipe for trouble.
And trouble there has been. Although most controversies eventually die down and the art wins at least a grudging measure of acceptance, a number of major battles have recently been lost by the pro-art forces. In Tacoma, Wash., for example, a colorful, jazzy, neon sculpture by Stephen Antonakos so enraged the city that a public referendum was called that killed the entire program. In New York, the General Services Administration has agreed to remove a sculpture by Richard Serra from the plaza in front of a federal building because the tenants couldn't bear it -- although this decision is being challenged in court.
I was witness recently to the decision of the Charlotte, N.C., City Council to veto the recommendation of their own art commission to acquire a sculpture by New York artist Joel Shapiro for the new Coliseum. "The public got out in front on this one," one of the council members remarked -- thanks largely to two local disc jockeys who whipped up popular antagonism. I can already hear the Greaseman limbering up his larynx for the controversies to come here in Washington.
All this suggests that artists and their sponsors alike are going to have to come up with ever more convincing ways of bridging the gap between contemporary art and its public audience. Artists are taking the lead in this, and developing strategies that range from the reintroduction of narrative and commemorative content -- as at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- to the merging of aesthetic and utilitarian objectives -- as in Holt's park in Rosslyn. They are also working in close cooperation with architects and landscape designers to resolve their differences.
Administrators are getting more savvy, too, and planning earlier for the incorporation of art into developing projects, instead of adding it as a careless afterthought. Public education programs are also getting better, helping to introduce the artist's work to the audience even as the project is being developed, instead of after it is completed and a large chunk of the public has already decided to hate it.
Yet I worry: where does this leave art? At what point does art cease to be a function of the individual psyche addressing the world around and become instead an amenity created by public policy? And who, in an increasingly bureaucratized process, will go to bat for the difficult works, or for the ones that might fail for aspiring to too much? In my more inward moments, I begin to think that the most profound art of our time, like religion, is too much a matter of individual conscience ever to be reconciled with the quest for public consensus. Yet we must go on.
John Beardsley is adjunct curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.