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Full text of "Public art and the government : a progress report"

Public Art 

and the Government 

A Progress Report 



BY BRIAN O'DOHERTY 

An idea whose time seems to have come, 
the Works of Art in Public Places program 
of the National Endowment for the Arts 



Reprinted from 
Art in America, 
May-June 1974 



Public Art and the Government: 
A Progress Report 

An idea whose time seems to have come, the Works of Art in Public Places 
program of the National Endowment plays marriage broker in the 
pairing of large-scale abstract sculptures with communities which seek their 
presences. This is the first published account, by the program's director. 



BY BRIAN O'DOHERTY 

When the National Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965, 
its first chairman, Roger Stevens, appointed panels to study 
needs in each art, and to make recommendations for programs. 
When the visual arts advisory panel met on March 28, 1966, at 
the Museum of Modern Art, Rene d'Harhoncourt proposed that 
a National Award of Excellence be created. At that time, there 
existed only one government award for which artists were eligi- 
ble — the Medal of Freedom. In 1963, this medal was given to 
Willem de Kooning; the next year, to Andrew Wyeth. Since these 
poles of taste were defined, artists have received no further Medals. 

D'Harnoncourt's proposal was that an Award for Excellence take 
the form of a major public commission; the work would then be 
given to a city for permanent public display, with the cost shared 
by Federal, State and urban agencies, and by private donors. 
Eventually this idea evolved into the Works of Art in Public Places 
program, under which artists are commissioned to make works 
for specific sites, with the impetus coming from local communi- 
ties — a crucial change in perspective which removed the idea of 
the Federal Government imposing art works on communities that 
had no option but to accept or reject them. 

In 1966, at the first meeting of the National Council of the 
Arts — 26 men and women appointed by the President to advise 
the chairman of the National Endowment — a recommendation was 
made for "an allocation up to $140,000 to provide matching funds 
enabling the commissioning of sculpture specifically designed for 
outdoor public places in three sections of the country." In April 
1967, Henry Geldzahler, the first director of Visual Arts Programs 
for the Arts Endowment, visited Grand Rapids, Michigan, to give 
a lecture at the local art museum, and suggested to his hostess 
that an application be made for a grant to erect a major sculpture 
on the new plaza which was the focus of a downtown renewal 
program. A $45,000 matching grant was approved at the May 1967 
Council meeting. Subsequently, a panel composed of local repre- 
sentatives and national experts appointed by the Chairman met at 
Grand Rapids, viewed the site, and selected Alexander Calder to 
execute the commission. La Grande Vitesse was dedicated in June 
1968. 

This extended process — request from the community, grant, 
panel meeting, visit from the artist, evolution of the design, 
placement and dedication of the work — is still an intrinsic part 
of Works of Art in Public Places, which has since that time 
diversified into a cluster of programs. Common to all of them is 
the aim of encouraging local communities to think in terms of 
public art, to debate its merits, and to prepare themselves for the 



Author: Brian O'Doherty. critic, erstwhile editor, 
and artist, is director of the Visual Arts 
programs of the National Endowment for the Arts. 



reception of a work which they themselves have commissioned. 
This is not too dissimilar to the architect's dialogue with a com- 
munity on the planning of a new building. In the case of art, 
which asserts itself without the cloak of a utilitarian rationale, the 
debate takes on an energy that would surprise those accustomed 
to the old-fashioned, avant-garde way of thinking: that, on the 
one hand, the public's perceptions are not worthy of much attention 
and that, on the other, the placement of the work and its absorption 
into the community signifies its esthetic gelding. 

Those of us who have accepted the premise that artists should 
have a public arena for their art, if they so desire it, have become 
aware of a new theme — that the insertion of advanced art into 
the social matrix alters both in ways we have hardly begun to 
understand. A reading of this theme tends to be clouded by the 
views that the artistic community and the public traditionally have 
of each other. The myths about the avant-garde, so devotedly 
sustained by large segments of the public, are (it is often forgotten) 
reciprocated by the myths that members of the avant-garde sustain 
about the public. In bringing the two parties together in the public 
arena, it has been this observer's experience that these myths tend 
to be dissipated rather than confirmed, and that the greatest single 
obstacle between artist and public may not be his work, but the 
accumulated myths of the modernist apparatus itself, which of 
course gravely misinterpret the aims of modernism. (For example, 
modernism holds considerable social potential, which has remained 
largely untapped.) Also, the convergence of artist and public, or, 
if you will, art and society, bring to bear on the work of public 
art esthetic and social energies that are, for those of us who see 
this area in positive terms, the material which must be used. It 
focuses attention on two areas: one specific — the immediate prob- 
lems of carrying through a project, the other general — the context 
of the work, which, in the largest sense, is the society within 
which such art gets made. 

Public art provides an acute perspective on these large questions 
about the social order which modernism has persistently asked, 
though this has been concealed in most history books, which 
confine themselves to internal histories of form. These large issues 
cannot be explicated here, but in reporting on the progress of a 
government program to assist local communities in supporting 
public art, they are a constant backdrop. In practice, perhaps, they 
translate themselves into a more decorous concept, that of "appro- 
priateness" — a phrase that allows these large matters a civilized 
entry into the debate which inevitably accompanies public art. 

La Grande Vitesse is a model of the successful assimilation of 
a work of advanced art by a community which eagerly prepared 
itself for its reception. Matching funds were raised locally on a 
wide base, and the community's pride in the result is one of those 
civic virtues in short supply in cities that have become arenas for 



random violence. The success of the Calder is due to the fact 
that different groups within the city found that it fulfilled their 
necessities: the art community was, of course, enthusiastic; the 
city's cultural leaders saw the Calder as a focus for various other 
kinds of cultural events — open-air concerts, etc.; and the puhlic 
was proud of the national attention the city received. Others saw 
the art work as a socially useful device for improving "the quality 
of life." This raises the question of intention. The art community 
tends to place too high a value on purity of motivation on the 
part of patrons (a criterion that would cast a shadow on Cosimo 
de Medici himself). The fact that some citizens concerned with 
urban renewal welcomed the Calder primarily as a major impetus 
toward renovating a downtown area hardly affects the work's 
quality. It is also possible to see the Calder as a model of the 
way in which a successful work of art can exercise those elusive 
moral energies we like to think attach themselves to the idea of 
quality, and so prepare the way, through practical education, for 
community participation in more advanced art. Grand Rapids has 
since brought sculptors to the city to fabricate their work with 
the assistance of local industry [see Art in America, Jan. /Feb. '74], 
and has climaxed this pioneering liaison between advanced art and 
the public by commissioning Robert Morris' first earthwork in the 
U.S., to be situated on the slopes of the nearby reservoir in an 
area that will become a public park. This stands, in my view, 
as the most exceptional gesture ever made in this country by a 
community to an advanced artist. 

This six-year arc from Calder to Morris can, one is encouraged 
to think, be described again. In retrospect, it was a fortunate 
occurrence that the Calder in Grand Rapids was the maiden voyage 
of a program whose occasional failures are bluntly instructive and 
whose successes are always hard- won. The criterion for success 
in this program, however, is not just the production of a successful 
work of art. It also includes the degree to which the work enters 
the social context, and contributes to the clarification of those larger 
matters referred to earlier. 

This point may be illustrated by the Isamu Noguchi Black Sun, 
for which $45,000 was appropriated in 1968, and which was 
dedicated in September 1969. Perfectly sited on a ledge near the 
Seattle Art Museum, the Sun and the viewer both look down on 
Seattle's orientalist mists. The matching funds were, in a grand 
gesture, donated in toto by an anonymous local patron. Here, by 
most standards, is an eminently successful occasion: a splendid 



work of art, perfectly sited, and fully supported locally. Yet the 
generosity of the donor involuntarily precluded the community from 
declaring, through its contributions, its involvement, and from 
reaping a resulting sense of pride. Without this sense of identifica- 
tion, a case could be made that the work remains sealed in an 
invisible museum, withdrawn from that dialogue through which 
the community clarifies its needs, educates itself and defines the 
work's appropriateness. It remains the product of distant forces. 
This I think is the situation that critics have in mind when they 
object to the idea of public art — the mysterious alighting of a work 
on a public site where, no matter how magnificent, it resides in 
alienated majesty, like a spacecraft after a forced landing. 

The Seattle project instructed other cities — and the Arts Endow- 
ment — on the irreplaceable value of harnessing community energies 
to public art projects. This lesson has been learned relatively 
recently by architects, whose International Style predecessors 
seemed at times to consider people to be as impersonal a component 
of their buildings as glass and steel. "Community involvement," 
like most slogans, has become a somewhat dreary phrase, but cities 
are full of tough-minded young administrators who renovate it with 
practical elan and a well-controlled idealism. Though community 
involvement can be a disguise for many philistinisms — some of 
them sophisticated — the concept depends on the patient exercise 
of a kind of trust intrinsic to the democratic process, which 
presumes that a body of people — a community — are fundamentally 
good-willed, and that that good will can see beyond short-term 
goals and immediate self-interests. 

For those whose concern it is to negotiate matters of quality, 
the path is precarious; it is not easy to develop this trust. But 
the public's vernacular wisdom is a warning against ignoring it: 
this vernacular is often devastating where public art is concerned, 
and has left us with our share of epigrams. (A smooth mound 
of black marble outside a San Francisco bank was quickly chris- 
tened "the banker's heart.") This shrewd common sense is, after 
all, the unconsulted public's only remaining weapon when con- 
fronted with "elitist" monuments. The collision of high art coming 
from the tradition of the privileged space (gallery and museum) 
and vernacular wisdom, often lends an air of comedy to public 
art projects wrapped in nothing more than their good intentions. 
The tinker-toy minnow in the shadow of the International-Style 
leviathan is an image that, for good reason, comes to even sophis- 
ticated minds when the words "public art" are spoken. And this 



Isamu Noguchi: Black Sun, 1969, black marble, 
9 feet high. Seattle, Washington 



Louise Nevelson: Environment XIII. 1972, Cor-Ten 
steel, 14 feet high. Scottsdale, Arizona. 





image is as much the public art cliche of our age as the 19th 
century's general on a horse. 

It has been the Endowment's concern to avoid not only such 
cliches, but the imposition of taste that subverts the dialogue 
between artists and community through which the role of public 
art in our society can be clarified. Perhaps the greatest single key 
to community acceptance of art works is the avoidance of the 
argument based on privileged understanding, i.e., "I know more 
than you and therefore you should accept this." 

When Nancy Hanks became chairman of the Arts Endowment in 
1969, she gave government support of public art, so ably defined 
by her predecessor, a vivid impetus. It was clear that art and public, 
or more truly, one variety of art and the public, were converging 
in a situation that the Endowment was in a unique position to 
assist and discreetly monitor. There was a changed public attitude, 
a viable public art, an art community with (after the protests of 
the '60s) an awakened social conscience, a wide concern for the 
restoration and recovery of downtown areas, and a general concern 
for environmental probity. 

During the next few years the program was reviewed both by 
advisory groups and by the National Council on the Arts. While 
maintaining the major commissions initiated by Stevens and Geld- 
zahler, and the general mode of administration, the program was 
expanded to encourage a broader variety of approaches and needs. 
At its 16th meeting, in October 1969, the National Council recom- 
mended that the worthy desire to celebrate figures of mature 
reputation not preclude opportunities for younger artists, whose 
work had redefined the nature of sculpture in the '60s. Subse- 
quently, both the concepts of public art and public spaces were 
reconsidered to encourage local communities to think of public 



Works of Art in Public Places 


Following is a selection of projects funded by the En- 
dowment. Matching funds were raised by local commu- 
nities. To date, some 80 projects have been funded in 
27 states. Many of these are still in progress. (The year 
given is the fiscal year in which the grant was approved, 
not the year the project was completed.) 


Grand Rapids, Mich. 


Alexander Calder 


$45,000 (1967) 


Seattle, Wash. 


Isamu Noguchi 


45,000 (1968) 


Wichita, Kan 


James Rosati 


45,000 (1970) 


Red Wing, Minn. 


Charles Biederman 


10,000 (1970) 


Minneapolis. Minn. 


Nine artists, 
including Barry Le Va, 
William Wegman 


10,000 (1970) 


Scottsdale, Ariz. 


Louise Nevelson 


20,000 (1970) 


Highland Park, III. 


Peter Voulkos 


20,000 (1971) 


Joplin. Mo. 


Thomas Hart Benton 


10,000 (1972) 


Lansing, Mich. 


Jose de Rivera 


45,000 (1972) 


Berkeley, Calif. 


Romare Bearden 


8,000 (1972) 


Fort Worth, Texas 


George Rickey 


35,000 (1972) 


New York, N.Y. (City 
Walls) 


Seven artists, 
including Allan 
D'Arcangelo, Mel 
Pekarsky, Nassos 
Daphnis 


10,000 (1972) 


Las Vegas, Nev. 


Mark di Suvero 


45,000 (1973) 


Minneapolis, Minn. 


Ronald Bladen 


45,000 (1974) 


Grand Rapids, Mich. 


Robert Morris 


30,000 (1974) 



art in many different contexts and mediums. Virtually any place 
where there is public congress — airports, subways, lobbies, city 
and county public buildings, parks, playgrounds, inner-city walls, 
even highways — offers opportunities for artist and community; it 
was pointed out that public art could include murals, photo-murals, 
large prints, tapestries, etc. As yet most of these opportunities 
remain unexploited by communities and. consequently, artists. 

The Endowment, as a responsive body, cannot artifically create 
needs, any more than it can dictate matters of taste. It is the 
declared needs of each field of the arts that properly define and 
limit the Endowment's role. While some may find this frustrating, 
it ensures that excessive powers on the part of the Endowment 
will not reverse the flow of energies coming from the art commu- 
nities the Endowment serves. This attitude has turned out to be 
the Endowment's major strength; panels and consultants administer 
the needs in their own fields by advising the Endowment on its 
role. Those who have assisted the Endowment in carrying through 
its Works of Art in Public Places program are familiar names within 
the art community; among them have been: Richard Hunt, Adolph 
Gottlieb. William Seitz, Barbara Haskell, Henry Hopkins, Peter 
Voulkos, Walter Hopps, Howard Lipman, Jan van der Marck. 

Projects supported by the Endowment fall into four fairly clear 
divisions: projects involving artists of national reputation (Noguchi, 
Calder, Nevelson, de Rivera, Rosati, Bladen, di Suvero); projects 
involving artists of regional reputation (James Clover, Jackson, 
Miss.; James Fitzgerald, Kirkland, Wash.); temporary experi- 
mental exhibitions testing the viability of public art in various 
situations ("Nine Artists/Nine Spaces" in Minneapolis; the Ver- 
mont Sculpture Symposium); and a category based on a single 
genre: outdoor murals. In 1970, the Endowment initiated an Inner 
City Mural program, in response to the spontaneous evolution of 
wall-painters, particularly in Chicago and Boston, serving their 
communities' needs in ways that brought a very different social 
complexion to the program. 

Indeed the social context within which art gets made is in- 
dispensable to any discussion of public art. The artist, whatever 
his social echelon or ideas, exists within a support-system of 
museums, dealers and collectors — an upper middle-class milieu 
which makes his work possible. This milieu, exclusive in terms 
of wealth and privilege, surrounds what is exclusive only in terms 
of quality (art), thus producing an unfortunate identification be- 
tween the two. The traditions of avant-gardism and social exclu- 
sivity coincide to militate against art's wider acceptance. 

The usual thinking about this situation is that the ready-made 
bourgeois world surrounding the artist's work translates the work's 
energies into the mercantile values of the larger society of which 
this bourgeois world is a part. The artwork, according to this 
scenario, becomes the ornament of a society that the work's values 
implicitly question. I'm not sure the answer is that clear or simple. 
It ignores the understanding some members of the museum and 
gallery community have of their own role, which is more than 
playing straight man to the artist. Suffice it to say here that there 
is art that resides easily enough within this bourgeois milieu and 
art that does not — rich art and poor art, if you like. And then 
there is public art, not a category or a style or a movement, but 
a social situation. Most of us can't begin to cope with it, and 
we confront, or stumble across, public art with mixed emotions. 
For those of us who took in the avant-garde tradition with our 
mothers' milk, the unshielded work, naked to the vagaries of public 
discourse, reinforces a sense of incongruity — finding a work of 
advanced art outdoors is like running into a Vassar girl working 
the street. Its exclusive social credentials, we tend to think, still 
attach to it, no matter how it adjusts to its situation. 

I suspect this view greatly underestimates the artist, though to 
be sure, we haven't heard from him (the literature on public art 
is scanty; it hasn't even identified the issues, let alone debated 
them). But an artist engaged in public commissions cannot avoid 
being involved in the values — all the values — which maintain the 
body social. And anyone who has been part of the process through 




The dedication of Alexander Calder's La Grande Vitesse, June 1968, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

James Rpsati: Wichita Tripodal, 1972, stainless steel, 17 by 37 by 50 feet. Wichita. Kansas. 



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Thomas Hart Benton: Joplin at the Turn of the Century, 1973, 5 1 /2 by 14 feet. Joplin, Missouri. 



which the Endowment's program works has a front-seat view of 
the dialogue within communities and between communities and 
artists — a dialogue that, as I've said before, is inevitably socio-po- 
litical in nature, however disguised in the specifics of the occasion. 
These specifics are always ready to cause difficulties and abruptly 
enlarge them in a way that would, if matters were not so serious, 
be gorgeously comic. Yet the encouragement of this dialogue has 
been, in my view, one of the Arts Endowment's most valuable 
contributions to our culture. Equally important has been the recog- 
nition of the inner city mural phenomenon, which was carried 
through in an irrefutable sweep of feeling not by a single artist, 
but by groups of artists, and not just by artists, but by an entire 
class, one that is usually far removed from privilege. 

No serious study of the inner city mural movement, primarily 
generated by minorities from the mid-'60s to the early '70s, exists. 
Yet its search not for an audience, but for an arena to display 
the values of its audience, reverses the usual currents in public 
art. The mural artists declare — and this is above all a declarative 
art — feelings of brotherhood, celebrate heroes, memorialize, attack 
injustice, notate historical events in a context of ideas eminently 
socialist and in a variety of styles derived from the Mexican 
muralists and socially conscious American art of the '30s. So that 



urban walls became community newspapers, on which were written 
symbolic essays and reports on its feelings, concerns, and issues — 
many of them quickly wiped out by the wrecker's ball. While 
general opinion on the value of all this "as art" (i.e. its relation 
to the area of privileged taste) has not been enthusiastic, the 
phenomenon introduced valuable coefficients into the dialogue 
about the nature of public art, and the relationship between artist 
and community. 

Many of the artists who began on walls proved that the "art 
world" could expand its borders to allow another mode of entry 
to artists who had no access to its benefits. This has been one 
of its lasting values. Although moods are less radical now, and 
the energies of the wall movement diminished — the Endowment's 
Inner City Mural program was absorbed back into the parent Works 
of Art in Public Places program in 1973 — the movement served 
its role by introducing the idea of the community as the conscience 
of a work of public art. The opposite situation — artists from the 
art community venturing into the city to decorate city walls — has 
resulted in some lively occasions, but the merits of this are, to 
many observers, far less certain, and the rationale subject to sharper 
debate than any other kind of public art. A major asset, it seems 
to me, is that this activity was generated not by institutions but 



William Wegman: What Goes Up Must Come Down, 1970, acrylic on wood, 10 by 35 feet, "9 Artists/9 Spaces," Minneapolis, Minnesota. 





Peter Voulkos: Untitled, 1973, bronze, 10 by 60 feet Highland Park, Illinois 



by artists seeking practical means to realize their own ends in the 
public arena. 

The sanest and most constructive summary that I have seen on 
the issue of public art, and the government's role in it, is in a 
report made in early 1973 by Irving Sandler to Nancy Hanks, the 
chairman of the Arts Endowment. After pointing out that the visual 
arts had aroused increasing mass media attention, Sandler noted 
that "in response to the public's openness, artists since 1960, in 
marked contrast to the Abstract-Expressionist vanguard of the 
1940s and 1950s, have tended to feel less alienated and to visualize 
themselves as integrated into society." "Public art," he went on, 
"is not yet considered a category or a tendency in contemporary 
art. ... However a considerable number of artists are thinking 
consciously about the potential of a public art ... a significant 
part of contemporary art lends itself to exhibition in public spaces 
and . . . artists are aware of this." 

Sandler did not neglect to report that "many artists find the 
idea of art-as-monument incredible, if not disreputable, believing 
that the notion of heroic art is outdated. Others reject even the 
idea of art-as-object ... I do not think these objections are valid 
with regard to public art or other current modes of object-art. The 
polemics of Conceptual artists, performance artists, earth artists, 
etc. (supported in other Endowment programs) are valid with 
respect to their art. However the time is past when any 'ism' can 
credibly claim to be the one fruitful tendency in art. This point 
deserves to be stressed. In recent years, one artistic style after 
another has monopolized the attention of the art-conscious public. 
The belief prevails that each successive style is avant-garde and 
that it renders all other styles obsolete. Value in art is thus made 
to depend on novelty. This point of view is outdated, and increas- 
ingly the uniqueness of an artist's vision and the artistry with which 
it is embodied in a work will count for more than the alleged 
'up-to-date' character of a style. 

"When the imagination opens up in the direction of public art," 
he goes on, "there will be many disparate ideas, most of which 
will not survive, but a tradition will be started that will generate 
its own criteria of suitability, quality, etc. . . . The process must 
be trial and error and will entail numerous failures, for the alterna- 
tive to a slow improvisational evolution is an art based on precon- 



ceived plans — and fiats of any kind lack the credibility to move 
artists today — or for that matter, most city planners, who are more 
interested in the ad hoc renewal of cities than in dreaming up 
Utopian ones. . . ." And he concluded that "now is the most 
propitious time since the 1930s" for the government to encourage 
public art. 

There are three Works of Art in Public Places programs, each administered 
ditferently, responding to different needs, and of a different financial scale Grant 
amounts run from $5,000 to $50,000 and are administered by local communities 

A fundamental aim is to inspire community support of public art projects, and 
to support the artist by an administrative structure through which matching funds 
can be raised for a project agreed upon by artist and community 

Further details on these programs can be had from the Visual Arts Department. 
National Endowment for the Arts, Washington. D C 20506 Envelopes should be 
marked Public Art: attn. Richard Koshalek Mr Koshalek is the Endowment's 
Assistant Director of Visual Arts Programs. 

Jose de Rivera: Construction No 150. 1972. stainless 
steel, 45 inches high Lansing, Michigan 




For general information about 
programs and activities of the 
National Endowment for the Arts 
write to: 

Program Information 
National Endowment for the Arts 
Washington, D.C. 20506 
(202) 382-6085 



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