Okay, I’ll give the winning design for the plaza at the City-County Building two cheers. Turning what is currently a brutalist concrete no man’s land into a place where people actually want to spend some quality time will be a good thing.
But I’m withholding that final cheer for one all too telling reason: the short shrift the design gives to public art.
When, I wonder is Indy going to get this right?
Yes, there is an area set aside for what the plan calls an “art installation” on the Great Lawn. But it appears to be about the same size (a little smaller, actually) as something nearby labeled “Bench/Air Intake.”
Initial press reports have chirped about how people there will play Frisbee and foosball, splash amongst fountains in the summer and ice skate in the winter.
All that’s well and good, and doubtless something of a relief to Mayor Ballard, not to mention Brian Payne, the president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), the philanthropic muscle that funded the design competition, which was won by a Baltimore firm called Design Collective.
We’d much rather have people talking about fun and games than, well, art.
That’s because our public conversations about art haven’t gone so well. It wasn’t that long ago that the CICF tried to have a sculpture by Fred Wilson installed on the City-County Plaza. The piece, entitled “E Pluribus Unum,” borrowed the image of a freed slave from the Circle Monument. This raised the hackles of some folks in the African-American community who felt that any reference to slavery was demeaning. There were public protests and, eventually, the CICF was forced to scrap the project as intended. (Editor's note: A portion of the money destined for "E Pluribus Unum" is funding the installation on the Cultural Trail of a new steel sculpture — Bernard Williams' "Talking Wall" — that "will reflect the proud and distinct history of the African American community in Central Indiana," according to the Arts Council of Indianapolis.)
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In Chicago, Millennium Park provides people with plenty of green space, gardens, a splash pool and an ice rink. But big, ambitious and monumentally popular public art is at the heart of the park’s design. People come from around the world to have their pictures taken in front of Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” better known as “the Bean.” And when they’re not doing that, they’re cooling their heels in the water spouting from the faces depicted by Jaume Plensa’s towering Crown Fountain.
These works of art have become part of Chicago’s iconography. People love visiting them time and time again.
Will we be able to say the same thing about the City-County plaza?
Although the winning plan is a marked improvement over the nullity we have now, I can’t help feeling an opportunity’s been missed. Sometimes great ambition is actually the most sensible way forward. Commissioning proven artists to create truly memorable public work, as was done in Chicago, doesn’t come cheap, but the rewards can be lasting. High impact public art doesn’t merely decorate a place, it becomes part of that place’s DNA.
We should be demanding more for the City-County plaza. We should be able to have a grownup talk about public art.
Frisbee is nice, but that’s kidstuff.