Sunday, July 20, 2008

Conversation on Public Art

By Aisha Motlani
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On Thursday evening UWM’s Inova-Kenilworth gallery hosted a panel discussion entitled “A Conversation on Public Art” in conjunction with its soon-to-end exhibition of five sculptures created by then-Milwaukee artist Gene Galazan in 1981. Curator Nicholas Frank moderated the panel, which included Whitney Gould, former architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; public art scholar Jennifer Geigel Mikulay; artist and educator Lee Ann Garrison; and public art activist and gallery owner Mike Brenner. Its worth noting that the sculptures themselves were a rather muted presence, lurking behind the audience like a group of cor-ten steel wallflowers rarely mentioned by anyone in the room. The first question Frank posed was: What would contribute to a better discourse on public Art? Gould’s response was that the public needs to be better educated – that the youth who attend our schools suffer from a dismaying lack of literacy concerning art history, and that whatever public discussion on art that does take place has been lamentably dumbed down. I agree the discourse on art has been diluted, and that promoting greater literacy on any subject is bound to create a more enlightened society. However, I don’t believe one has to have studied art history to glean some valuable insight from a work of art, and if art is really doing its job it should require little or no explanation: it should stand up to scrutiny by itself, without the aid of theoretical writings to prop it up. Garrison’s response was that the city needs a better structure to deal with public art, and that choices for public art shouldn’t be based on simplistic notions of personal taste dividing those who “like” a piece from those who don’t. The most salient point was raised by Geigel-Mikulay. She argued we need to place the local discourse on public art within a national context. I’ll second that. If there’s one thing that’s clearly apparent in Milwaukee is that the public is offered a depressingly narrow set of alternatives when it comes to public art. Most of the projects that are conceived are either overtly abstract or explicitly figurative and few projects that traverse these boundaries are ever realized and get very little air-time. If the public and deciding committees were to look at artwork being created around the states and beyond they’d have a better idea of what a piece of public art can and should do for the space it occupies. Unfortunately the question of why we actually need public art was never fully addressed here. There are those who’d say we ought to be beyond making such rudimentary enquiries into the purpose of public art – that we ought to be well-versed in its benefits by now: beautifying our streets and squares, challenging or heightening our perceptions of our space, creating focal and conversational points around which the public can gather etcetera. Well, I believe if there’s one thing we ought never to tire of is it’s asking questions. This line of enquiry is particularly essential to art, whose role and value is constantly in flux and needs to be continually reevaluated. For my part I believe public art that consists of static forms highlighting the prominence of certain areas, views or events in our history usually serves a very limited purpose, and one that’s increasingly disconnected with the manner in which we now perceive public space. I believe today’s public artists would benefit from thinking more like architects and actually begin the process of design with users of the space in mind. Like the best architecture, public art serves its fullest purpose when it doesn’t over-define its boundaries and its functions but creates a space which the public can fill.
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