As a former Chicago resident, I see three distinctions between Chicago's wildly successful "Cows on Parade" and Washington's disappointing "Party Animals" and, now, "PandaMania." First, the cows were life-sized and lifelike, in notable contrast to D.C.'s cartoonish figurines. The cows were interesting and compelling simply because they looked like cows.
Second, because of their realistic nature, there was an inherent irony in each artist's work. The juxtaposition of the artist's statement and what our brains process as livestock gave each statue an impact that cannot be achieved when painting a form that resembles a giant marshmallow.
Third, let's face it -- Washington is no artists colony. Most of the pandas, like the donkeys and elephants that preceded them, are simply painted murals that could just have easily been applied to canvases.
Chicago's artists understood the three-dimensional nature of the cows, as well as how they would interact with the people who would encounter them and the places they occupied. They were made into seats, constructed into towers, embedded with TV monitors, turned upside-down, even hung from buildings. They had rhinestones, wire coils and gumdrops set into them. Even in the area in which Washington should excel -- making a statement -- the Chicago cows were more imbued with social commentary.
As a civic undertaking, the cows were a success in two measures: They raised $3.5 million for charity (by contrast, the Party Animals raised just a third of that amount, $1.2 million), and they thoroughly entertained visitors and residents alike.
Don't get me wrong, Chicagoans didn't consider the cows "art." Rather, they were more like nice neighbors that moved in for the summer. And when they left in the fall, everyone was sorry to see them go.