With public involved, public art is fine

Input is a lot different than vague, burdensome rule

Maria Phillips is an art and architectural historian, visual artist, and founding partner of Avenue 9 Gallery. She is creating a non-profit advocacy group Chico Visual Arts Alliance.

Editor’s note:
This commentary is a response to “Public art should hold public appeal” in the July 24 edition of the CN&R. Dr. Richard Ek responds in a letter.

Richard Ek’s Guest Comment on public art reminds me of a cake I baked recently. I had all the right ingredients, but the result was unpalatable.

Here’s the problem: Ek targets all the pieces of public art in Chico that he personally doesn’t like and, as a class, judges them unappealing and worthless. On what basis? He makes this clear in his “guiding dictum” to the Arts Commission: “no abstract art.”

Wow! That would eliminate Maya Ling Lin’s monumental, priceless, internationally acclaimed Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.—a must-see, a moving experience … and, at the time, so controversial that a traditional sculpture eventually had to be installed across from it to satisfy the few yet vocal critics.

Whether something is “abstract” or not is not the point; the point is does it work, who decides, and can we afford it?

Since we are not living in ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence, where “public” art was commissioned and paid for by the oligarchs, and since we have a representative form of government in Chico, I agree that we generally do better when we let members of the public put in their two cents’ worth.

Man, would I ever have loved to have a choice about how our Veterans Memorial in our City Plaza was designed and built! But there was no opportunity. A small group of private people—shall we say oligarchs?—bought the marble and made the plans, and the rest of us had no voice. Bringing the public on board with competitions, complete with lots of fanfare and publicity, is generally a good idea.

In terms of the Arts Commission’s proposed project, based on Ek’s own description, it is clear that it aims to A) stimulate the arts in Chico by bringing in an outside artist with his/her fresh ideas and celebrity status; and B) support and enhance the visibility of a good number of local artists. If we can afford it, this should bring us more bang for the buck than another run-of-the-mill competition.

Having said this, like Ek, I liked the COBA project and think we might bring it back to nourish our artists, indulge our citizens and sweeten our lives.

Ek’s analysis is too liberally peppered with his own prejudices for it to be useful except as a conversation starter. If Chicoans voted 70 percent against publicly funded art yet we know they approve of the murals and the COBA project (which included tons of abstract art), let us recognize that what we’re talking about is taste. And affordability.

Even if paid for privately, public art can be unpalatable—like Ek’s essay and my poor cake.