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Calling for Public Art

Milwaukee needs administrator to develop guidelines, plans

Aug. 15, 2012
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Milwaukee County needs a professional public art administrator. Yes, County Executive Chris Abele defunded just shy of $800,000 for a Milwaukee County Courthouse sculpture. And yes, he placed the Milwaukee County's Public Art Committee on hiatus. What people are less aware of is the strong overall support for public art. Here are just a few examples:

  • Milwaukee County Supervisors set aside $50,000 for enhancement of a bus stop in Bay View. The Milwaukee Common Council approved additional funding.
  • A new sculpture by Peter Flanary will be installed along the Hank Aaron State Trail this year. Chad Brady completed a mural for a trail tunnel in 2011.
  • An anonymous donor funded the Jaume Plensa sculpture dedicated at Shorewood's Atwater Park in 2010.
  • Multiple art elements by Nicolas Lampert and Paul Kjelland were unveiled inside the new Villard Avenue library last year.

Yet, not a single paid, trained public art administrator has been involved with any of these initiatives.

There was a consultant at the beginning of the planning for Pedestrian Drama, Milwaukee's now award-winning 2011 installation. The city of Milwaukee hired Regina Flanagan, an independent public art consultant based in the Twin Cities, to produce a "Public Art & Design Study" for three Downtown thoroughfares and guide the development of a project to encourage pedestrian activity on Wisconsin Avenue. After a nationwide competition, the project's local selection committee enthusiastically chose New York artist Janet Zweig's proposal.

Then Flanagan's funding ran out. This meant there was no longer an experienced art administrator involved. As a result, a well-intentioned engineer presented Zweig's final design to the Common Council's Public Works Committee. The engineer didn't clearly explain the relationship between a sample of the flip-sign animation technology Zweig planned to use and what the final project would look like. The sample featured two women trading a frock back and forth. Some members of the committee recoiled and controversy erupted. It took a public hearing to save the project.

If Flanagan had presented the concept, she would have communicated Zweig's intentions. There would have been no brouhaha.

There might have been a similar hullabaloo in Madison in July, but Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf was there to step in. Young Brazilian street artist Panmela Castro painted a mural at the Williamson Street Co-op. The 120-foot-long mural features two female torsos with long, flowing hair that winds together. The torsos are nude and have nipples. Some people complained to the store's management. Proactively, Wolf spoke with city officials before puritanical fervor spread. The nipples remain.

Guidelines and Plans

Trained art administrators serve as liaisons between artists and the community. First and foremost, they help develop public art guidelines and plans. Plans with goals matter. A plan determines where public art should be sited and the relationship of funding for temporary and permanent public art. A plan establishes the balance between soliciting artists from inside and outside Wisconsin. Guidelines delineate how funds can be raised. Guidelines have policies to cover the acceptance of donated art, maintenance of the art and possible de-accessions. Without a policy, Milwaukee County is currently puzzling over how to handle a sculpture donated for the lakefront. Wolf says, "Advanced planning for public art results in agreed-on ideas that make it through the bureaucratic process and become likely candidates for creative financing."

The Milwaukee Arts Board Subcommittee on Public Art, with a very modest $25,000 annual budget, has been able to accomplish a lot because it has clearly defined goals. Under the guidance of chair Polly Morris, the budget currently supports a conservation fund, documents Milwaukee public art and provides matching funds for public art projects.

The need for an arts administrator has been advanced before, but never for a targeted public art position. The timing is perfect. Morris and her committee, whose service to the city is voluntary, cannot provide the kind of consistent leadership, oversight and follow-through required. The entire Milwaukee County public art program is under review. The county and city could collaborate and coordinate public and private funding for the position. Continuity between the city and the county would create cost-saving efficiency and better public art.

Milwaukee and Greenfield worked together on a major streetscaping enhancement. Last year 190 identical "Historic Route 41" banners on 95 poles were installed on South 24th Street and Layton Avenue for $434,625. With a public art administrator orchestrating the project, the outcome might have been another award-winner, instead of numbing mediocrity.

Pegi Christiansen is the chair and site manager of IN:SITE, fostering temporary public art. She blogs about public art at pegichristiansen.org. Christiansen is not qualified for and has no interest in the public art administrator position she suggests in this story.


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