David Hoppe

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:: Arts debacles

Two major setbacks

By David Hoppe

Cramming all that's gone wrong with the arts around here in the past few weeks won't be easy, but here goes.

The debacles involving public art at the airport and Fred Wilson's installation at the City-County Building plaza have provided local arts skeptics - all those people who believe that investing in the arts is a limp-wristed waste of time and resources - with enough ammunition to last into the next decade. Arts advocates have been left in the lurch.

It seems the airport hasn't been the money-making machine that was promised when it opened in 2007. Since then the economy's tanked and air travel has become nasty, brutish and not short enough for anyone who doesn't fly first class.

But back when spirits were high, airport planners did something previously unheard of in Indianapolis: they included a major arts component in their design for the new airport terminal. Painstakingly vetted to be in accordance with myriad security regulations and traffic issues, original works of art were integrated into the terminal design under the direction of Julia Moore of Blackburn Architects.

The results were widely celebrated. Not only did the art works serve to lighten the airport experience, the project was an object lesson in how art could be successfully incorporated into major construction jobs - a first for Indianapolis.

But that was then. The Airport Authority now has a new board and a new CEO in John Clark. In his search for needed revenue, Clark has apparently decided that some of the art in the airport's self-proclaimed "permanent" collection isn't permanent after all.

Upon deciding not to renew the airport's contract with Blackburn, Clark entered into an agreement with the Indianapolis Museum of Art to manage the airport's art holdings. The result of this alliance was news that an installation by local artist James Wille Faust, located in a prime spot above an escalator leading to ground transport, would be removed so that advertising and works of digital art could be put in its place. Other works of art at the airport are reportedly being considered for removal as well.

While it is understandable that the airport would want to increase revenues through strategically placed adverts, the decision to scuttle Faust's site-specific piece is crassly out of step with the airport design's original - and widely applauded -- intention. What's more, the notion that the airport will commission new works by artists recommended by the IMA seems at cross-purposes with its stated need to make more money.

Worst of all, though, is the message this sends about the value of art. The airport now seems as fickle as the homeowner who chooses a painting based on how it looks with a couch or the drapery. Art that was selected and paid for through a rigorously designed process is being thrown over because, well, it's so 2007.

But the cause of public art has fared no better downtown. Fred Wilson's "E Puribus Unum," a sculptural installation of a freed slave holding a flag - a figure modeled on the slave depicted at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument - has been elbowed away from its intended site, the plaza in front of the City-County Building.

The proposed Wilson piece has drawn fire since last winter, when an outspoken portion of the African-American community came out against it. One protester likened Wilson's piece to a lawn jockey.

The piece certainly is provocative, but that's Fred Wilson's stock-in-trade, something the leaders of the Cultural Trail who commissioned it must have embraced. He draws on existing works to make points and raise questions about our history, who we are and where we're headed as a people. It could just as easily be argued that locating his piece in such a prominent civic location was a way of making an affirmative statement about how far this city has come since the bad old days of the Civil War, the Klan and the destruction of Indiana Avenue.

But Wilson's detractors were having none of that. Wilson's using the image of a slave was all that mattered - his conceptual context didn't count.

Unfortunately, when people opposed to the work threatened a protest, Mayor Ballard and Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Community Foundation both came out against locating it on the plaza. While Wilson now says he's open to finding another location, it's not clear whether "E Pluribus Unum" will ever be realized.

As with any work of art, people had a right to be offended by Wilson's proposal. That those who commissioned the piece in the first place lacked the courage of their convictions and backed away from what made it truly resonant, the site in front of city hall, is a defeat that proponents of ambitious public art in Indianapolis may find it hard to recover from. In an argument over art, it seems, in Indianapolis, the loudest voice wins.

The waste and waffling exhibited in these recent developments make you wonder what kind of art we can expect in this city. I see a 50-foot statue of Peyton Manning in our future. They could put it where "E Pluribus Unum" was supposed to be. The only people who would object are bound to be art lovers.