In fights over public art, supporters chalk up some victories

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 22, 2012 

US NEWS PUBLICART 1 KC

In Overland Park, Kansas, the city council stood behind a controversial statue in a public garden, despite an outcry from a faith-based 'pro-family' group which objected to the image of a headless young woman with bare breasts snapping a photograph of herself.

FRED BLOCHER — Kansas City Star/MCT

— The four-story sculpture that fills a rotunda in Terminal One at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is eye-catching, with swirling pieces of metal and suspended circular objects that create a galaxy-like effect.

But 15 years after its installation, the terminal’s owners decided that “Star Sifter” was taking up valuable real estate, and they told sculptor Alice Aycock in an email that they needed to eliminate it, the better to expand the food court.

Aycock fought back, and won: The airport agreed to move her work to another part of the terminal.

It was a rare example of an artistic victory, but one that’s beginning to be felt in other parts of the country, not just in such cultural meccas as New York. Artists are fighting back, joining forces with lawyers, community activists, cultural institutions and public officials to defend public art.

In Overland Park, Kan., the city council stood behind a controversial statue in a public garden, despite an outcry from a faith-based “pro-family” group that objected to the image of a headless young woman with bare breasts snapping a photograph of herself.

In Trenton, N.J., the governor recently blocked the removal of a conservation-themed sculpture in the plaza of the state’s environmental agency.

“Public art can bring a different dimension into public space in lots of different ways,” New York public art expert Jennifer McGregor said.

Even in an airport.

Aycock, a prominent New York artist who’s known for her large-scale public sculptures, has created pieces for the Museum of Modern Art and other prominent venues. She’s had to deal with moving her work to make room for renovations.

But the JFK case was different. The decision seemed so absolute. So Aycock enlisted some high-powered legal talent, drew a sympathetic judge and won a temporary restraining order.

With public sentiment on her side, she ended up with an arbitrated settlement this summer that meant the sculpture soon will be moved and reassembled, with some changes, to an even more prominent place in the terminal.

“It’s been a very happy solution to the issue,” Aycock said. “I hope it encourages artists to fight for art. Not every artist has the means or opportunity to do so.”

The controversy over the Kansas statue arose earlier this year, after a woman and her young children came across the work in Overland Park’s new International Sculpture Garden. She thought it was inappropriate for a park that’s frequented by school groups, and she pushed the city to remove it.

After viewing an image of the statue on the Internet, McGregor, a well-known arts curator, said, “You shouldn’t be surprised that this statue got a reaction.”

But the city council didn’t budge.

“We believe the piece is artistic and not obscene,” Overland Park spokesman Sean Reilly said. “We’re standing up for artistic freedom. We’re standing up for this piece.”

The statue, “Accept or Reject,” is by Chinese artist Yu Chang and it was donated, as all the pieces in the garden were.

“This woman is choosing to take pictures of only part of herself, deleting her own identity, which is illustrated by the lack of a head,” according to material provided by the city and based on an explanation by the artist.

“She carves herself into pieces, shown by the way the statue visually breaks apart as you walk around it. She has unfortunately chosen not to focus on the importance of her whole self. Instead she presents pieces for the world to see.”

The controversy, however, isn’t so much over Chang’s vision as the graphic way he chose to express it.

Not only is the nudity driving the debate, the conservative American Family Association says the statue depicts “sexting,” the sending of sexually explicit images by cellphone, which is a felony in Kansas if sent to anyone under 18.

“If a child were to emulate that, it would be illegal,” said Phillip Cosby, the group’s Kansas and Missouri state director.

The group collected enough signatures from county residents to impanel a grand jury, an option that’s available in only a few states.

Reilly said the female figure was holding a camera, not a cellphone. But Cosby said the statue’s “fully aroused breasts,” as well as the image of a digital camera, which can share photos, sent a “prurient” message.

The grand jury is scheduled to meet Friday.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie came to the rescue of public art when the state Department of Environmental Protection told sculptor Athena Tacha that her installation in the agency’s plaza, where it’s stood since 1987, would be destroyed unless she wanted to remove it at her own expense.

State officials had planned to replace it with a rain garden that trapped water to irrigate the plants and trees.

“The courtyard was starting to deteriorate,” agency spokesman Larry Hajna said.

Tacha, who’s known as a pioneer in incorporating the landscape into art, said she’d created “Green Acres” specifically for that space and it wasn’t movable. It’s the centerpiece of the courtyard, a graceful, sweeping design of curving steps built of pale brick set against greenery and a red-tiled courtyard, amid large granite tiles embedded with photographs of endangered New Jersey wildlife. It’s long been a popular lunchtime venue for state employees.

“I just was stunned,” Tacha said of the state’s plan to demolish her work. “I wanted people to know that the department was doing something to save nature.”

Charles Birnbaum, the president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit group that’s devoted to getting the public to value landscapes, began a publicity blitz and an online petition. In the end, the artwork will remain.

“In urban America, having this is important,” Birnbaum said. “It’s a blurring of the lines. It’s a plaza. It’s art.”

Email: mrecio@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @maria_e_recio

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