Going Public

Navigating the process of a public art proposal feels like a long walk by flashlight through a snowstorm. Signs are unclear and paths become obscure along the way. Because the destination is not a geographically fixed point, there remain, at the conclusion of an artist’s unsuccessful bid to win a competition, questions about where they traveled, and why the trip dead-ended.

Being a finalist in a public competition requires presenting a site-specific art installation idea for a location that does not yet exist, except on an architect’s drawing. Review committee presentation guidelines are idealistic and all-embracing. A chosen artist is expected to follow generalized directives while creating detailed concepts that are open to community feedback. After applying to numerous public art, call-to-artists entries over the years, and being chosen as a commission finalist for a half-dozen of them, I’m beginning to see a pattern in the selection process.

Including an environmental artist in a list of finalists for a public commission gives the impression that a review panel is open to work that’s outside the mainstream. In the end, though, it’s the traditional choices of carved stone blocks or welded/cast metal, that committees often settle on. A bronze horse and a bronze frog won the two most recent commissions I competed in. I have no problem with the art, itself. In both cases fine presentations were given by the excellent local artists whose work was chosen. The Vermont Arts Council and review panel members do great work in making the Art in State Buildings program possible. But I am personally discouraged by a process for bringing art to the public that encourages progressive thinking while sticking to the middle ground.

Here are the two concepts I presented this month for a site outside a new, science lab in Randolph, Vermont. Natural stone, from the site, was the chosen material. Laboratory equipment and a DNA molecule inspired the concepts. A landform in dry stone invites lab staff and visitors to take in the surroundings and explore the mysteries of nature and art. A second concept utilizes the shape of a double helix to create organic backrests on benches located near the building entrance. I took great pleasure in developing these ideas and bringing them to reality, even though, I now know, they’ll never grow beyond the stature of clay miniatures.