It Ain’t Easy Being Public Art

I think Art in Public Places staff for any community have one of the most difficult jobs in the arts, particularly when it comes to public perception of the job they do.  While everyone accepts that not every work of art will be appreciated, the fact that public art installations are visible for years in places hundreds, if not thousands, of people pass each day makes them the subject of daily comment, often repeatedly by the same people.

Not to mention there are birds pooping on them, too

While some pieces become the source of enormous pride, local identity, and tourism (i.e. Cloud Gate in Chicago), and others generate a mixture of pride and bemusement (here’s to you, Blucifer), in some cases it seems you can’t win for trying.

That seems to be the case in Annapolis, MD where all three options for a traffic circle the Art in Public Places folks posted for feedback got panned.   Maybe it is the location that is cursed or the local residents who are particularly critical. The new sculpture is meant to replace one installed in 2011 that fell prey to termites.

…meant to evoke the ribs of a ship in a nautical town. Even [artist] Donovan admitted it could also be compared to whale bones on a beach or a brontosaurus-sized rack of barbecued ribs.

Among the comments people made for the submissions included noting that two of the options looked like hand of people coming out of graves. (Apparently, there are some cemeteries in the vicinity). Another said one of them looked like drowning people reaching for a lifeline. One commenter said one piece looked like it belonged at the entrance of a retirement village in Boca Raton. One piece was likened to a condom.

There were also the inevitable comments about the whole endeavor being a waste of money.

There is a rule in surveying that you should never ask for feedback if you aren’t prepared to act upon the responses. So the question is what the public places art commission intends to do with the comments they received. One option is to reject the finalist pieces and go back back with a solicitation for proposals. Another option is to ask the artists to make changes to their work in response to the comments.

A former commission member addressed the latter option:

“If you take a public comment to reconstruct an artist’s vision, then you are basically attacking the integrity of their art,” said Genevieve Torri, a former commission chair who represents the area around the circle. “It’s up to the artists. This is their vision.”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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