The Private Business of Public Art

Cedar of Lebanon by Jacob Harmeling.jpg

Like many cities coming out of the downturn, Orlando is jonesing for a recovery. To promote a sense of new prosperity, City Hall leaders recently added eight works of art to its downtown core, amidst much fanfare. Before we start whistling “Happy Days Are Here Again,” however, we would do well to examine the circumstances of this renewed interest in public art. Its surprising return was trumpeted as a new way to enrich the city and benefit its residents; many, including this author, applauded the effort. This has certainly happened. But has the result been a barrier, as much as a connection, to its citizenry?

Public art, always controversial, became a battleground in the sixties and seventies, with cries of “waste of taxpayer money” heard in cities across the land. Artists, always exploring new frontiers, were victims of decency committees and moralizing mayors when their visions strayed much beyond a famous figure astride a horse. Public art placed politicians in yet one more hot seat they didn’t especially need. Yet these programs brought us great beauty, as well. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, for example, have proved to be enduring. In the right hands, art creates wondrous public space. Battlegrounds, yes; but many battles are worth fighting.

Private sponsorship, too, has had a place in the city: corporations, and sometimes even individuals, have commissioned works for their prominent institutions. While the state usually plays it safe with taxpayer money, the private commission was a place where an artist could dare. Good cities have a combination of both. Here in Orlando, the combination was alive and well, until spending on art ceased sometime early in the downturn.

Public investment in art is suddenly in vogue, and while City Hall takes the kudos for the $1.5 million that has been spent in Orlando, a careful reading of the script shows that no taxpayer money was actually used. Private donors commissioned the art; City Hall merely placed it, mostly on public property. The public/ private partnership seems to have resulted in a collaboration, and a sense of unity between the corporate world, high net worth individuals, and the state, with the public getting the spillover effect of some new art to view.

All seems to be great, suddenly, in our newfound prosperous era. The state and its richest citizens so often are adversaries who struggle over tax policy, and find little common ground over something as uneconomical as art. But out of nowhere, a collegial atmosphere has sprung forth, with participants rallying around ethereal values such as aesthetics and an inspiring sidewalk. Private interests and public officials are now holding hands round their new treasures, exhorting the public to share in this festival of new art. We seem to be awash in original works of great creative import, thanks to our visionary politicians and our benevolent corporate chieftains.

And now, a closer look. Of the eight pieces chosen by a jury that reviewed many entries, nearly all are modifications of public art pieces installed elsewhere. Kentucky-based artist Meg White’s “Muse of Discovery” is very similar to her “Awaking Muse” in Schaumburg, Illinois, for example, and others follow suit. There is nothing wrong with this, and the works are all quite good. Yet taken together, the multiple pieces speak of safety and security. Sure-fire crowd pleasers similar to those that already adorn malls and parks in other cities were chosen here. Orlando, where the current t-shirt slogan sadly seems to be Orlando Doesn’t Suck, did not merit much originality , judging by the artworks chosen by a volunteer jury.

Public art programs were born in an era when public works brought us bland, uninspiring buildings and infrastructure, and the intent was to force cities to inject some originality and creativity into government projects. Today, the municipal art budget has been turned over to private donors, and City Hall has successfully escaped its obligation to pay its percent – a parsimonious proportion to begin with – and zeroed out its budget for creativity and originality. Other people’s art and other people’s money are cleverly passed off as an enhancement to the city’s public realm, with politicians taking credit for this coup.

Orlando's current public art situation is emblematic of our new era of the blurred lines between public and private interests. Pre-recession, a few individuals and a few corporations placed art of their own choosing in the public realm as an expression of taste. Today, they are reticent to do so, except through a complicated nonprofit agency. Are our high net worth individuals and our corporate citizens so afraid of their capitalist peers that they can no longer put public art on their own property at their own discretion, without being accused of soft-hearted sentimentality and a lack of interest in profit?

And are politicians so battle-scarred that they no longer wish to suggest that the taxpayer deserves to have his or her money spent on art? The original motive to elevate the public realm and visibly set a level of taste and sophistication is no longer sufficient for state-sponsored art. Neither does this new private sponsorship seem to rely much on site-specific commissions, preferring to adapt art that has been focus-group tested elsewhere, like any good consumer product.

Studies that correlate a rich public realm with cities that are chosen for corporate relocations seem to justify the move into art by Orlando, a city desperate for more jobs. So, in the end, it is about money after all. In Florida, home to Art Basel Miami, we may be experiencing an arms race of sorts, as cities compete for the hip and the cool on an absurd stage to win over the creative class. This should be no surprise to anyone who is involved in the arts, a group that has become increasingly cynical about diminished funding from public and private donors alike. Artists, of course, lose out; as craftsmen who labor for the sake of attracting more jobs to the region, they have less and less impact on the city’s public face.

The result is a public/private partnership that is carefully orchestrated to eliminate controversy, squelch accusations of taxpayer waste, and to provide a safe and secure support group for those rare capitalists who are still soft-hearted enough to care about arts funding. These motives insulate the city from its people, damping down all but a sure-fire applause reaction. In this twilight of public art, the face of the city is painted in a perfunctory way to please everyone yet no one, leaving a hollow and unsatisfying result. Of the new pieces selected by a committee, only Jacob Harmeling of Orlando created an original work, “The Cedar of Lebanon". Artists who come anywhere from Zurich to Oregon have installed other magnificent pieces, and even if they reference other art, these beautiful works can be considered in a new context. Central Florida, home to the great pool of creative talent, including many who service world-class theme parks, will appreciate the gesture regardless of the mechanics behind it.

This new era, like other times, will ultimately be judged by the quality of the stuff that it leaves behind. Timeless art that says something specific and intense will ultimately contribute to Orlando’s place in the future of the city as a global entity. Let’s hope the new artwork is respected and honored, that it takes on its own sense of place, and that it revives a conversation about what our cities mean to us.

Richard Reep is an architect and artist who lives in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and he has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

Photo by Richard Reep: "Cedar of Lebanon" by Jacob Harmeling