LeBaron: Criticism and discord ‘part of the process' for public art in Sonoma County
The term “public art” might be considered an oxymoron. “Public” is a broad, all encompassing term, while “art” is a purely private matter, both in creation and appreciation. Reconciling the two can be a problem.
It is a subject that makes everyone an instant critic and can put the gentlest artist into a blind rage at a moment's notice.
This is an overstatement, of course, but the term has - and does - create a climate that heightens the probability of public discourse, to choose a polite term.
Most recently, it has been a Petaluma issue. An installation selected by an art committee and approved by the city council will bring five replicas of Victorian bathtubs mounted on poles roughly 25 feet high to a riverside site.
It's a done deal for San Francisco artist Brian Goggin. But it didn't come without its critics and discord - irate citizens speaking out of turn, interrupting, resorting to profanity and storming out of meetings. Polls taken by interested observers suggest that public opinion is evenly divided, perhaps tipping toward puzzlement.
You can say it is all “part of the process.”
That's what the artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and his late wife/partner, Jeanne-Claude, said about the 33 months of long and contentious hearings at many boards, commissions and agencies in two counties as the government tried to find reasons to stop their project.
The artists were a lesson in patience and civility and, while they engineered an illegal dip into the Pacific, Running Fence was as much a political as artistic triumph. In 1999 it was selected by the director of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art as the signature work of the nation's 20th century.
As much scoffing as took place at the initial responses to Christo's grandiose plan, it did have the advantage of NOT being public art. It was conceived, created and paid for by the artists themselves.
But, throw in public money - call it tax dollars if you prefer - and even Mona Lisa would have a fight on her hands.
Santa Rosa can be proud of its recent art history. The sheltering hand sculpture at the Santa Rosa Plaza, the many good works of SOFO artist Mario Uribe, the innovative use of old bicycles and discarded parking meters offer whimsy along with sculptural grace. Not that we all love everything. Nor can we point to a slate clean of controversy. But, believe me when I say the climate for artistic embellishment is much sunnier than it used to be.
Which makes this the proper moment to tell the story of two well-known and well-respected artists and their encounters with the Santa Rosa City Council of the 1980s.
Sonoma County artist Bruce Johnson, now internationally known for his large sculptures from rocks, redwood and other natural materials, was young, but his name was already familiar in bigger-city art projects when, in 1981, he won a competition to design an installation to crown the glory of the newly bifurcated Courthouse Square.
Funds were available from the Redevelopment Agency that was overseeing the downtown “overhaul” in the decades following the 1969 earthquake.
The agency had appointed a panel of eight - primarily artists and architects - to make the selection and award an $18,000 prize.
Johnson's design for a trio of massive stone sculptures was chosen over some 80 entries, including two other finalists with artistic ranking, Carroll Barnes and Roger Barr.
The City Council, which then was just five members, had the opportunity to approve the committee's unanimous choice and, well, you can guess. Two of the five joined the inevitable gathering of curbside critics.
One council member said it was “not representative of the city.” Another asked for a definition of “sculpture” and insisted on referring to it as “The Thing.” Another was uncertain, citing negative public comments. The mayor observed that warnings about artistic criticism dated to the ancient Greeks.
The vote was 3-2 in favor of rejecting the committee's recommendation. And Johnson's artistic vision for the plaza died.
Time passed. Repeated suggestions to restart the process from the Redevelopment Committee and pleas from every corner of the art community to find local art for the square fell on deaf ears.
By 1983, it had become apparent that the council had taken charge of the matter.
Johnson made periodic appearances before the council, continuing to plead his case and the Redevelopment Agency, left hanging, pondered what to do about the art-challenged west side of the square.
In the spring of '84, the Cultural Arts Council was offering to help choose appropriate art, but the then-mayor's response was something like “Thank you very much but we're working on something else.” The following week Ruth Asawa came to town.