In 1989, after several years of controversy, legal wrangling and numerous public forums, Richard Serra’s sculptural installation Tilted Arc was removed from a federal plaza in New York City by the US government’s General Services Administration (GSA), which had originally commissioned the piece through its Art-in-Architecture program. The employees in the building had objected strenuously to the large, rusted metal work, claiming that it blocked the sun and took away the space where they ate their lunch and enjoyed occasional outdoor concerts.
No one came out of this looking good: The GSA struck the employees in the building, many political leaders and much of the public as insensitive to the public interest; Richard Serra’s art reputation was blackened, and he was personally characterized as unwilling to listen or compromise; those complaining about the installation were denigrated as philistines, and Serra’s apologists looked out of touch with the rest of the world as they described the artist’s standing in the art world and defended the panel system that had selected the work in the first place.
In the intervening years, a sea change has taken place in the field of public art, as both public and private commissioning bodies have increasingly altered the way they select new works (and the types of pieces they select) and the way they are sited and installed. Studying public art controversies has itself become a growing field, represented by a flood of books and studies that aim to help agencies head off complaints before they occur and lessen their intensity after they arise.
“Controversy is a result of a process of commissioning and installing a work of public art that didn’t work well. It’s not so much because of the content of the art,” said Cynthia Abramson Nikitin, director of public art programs at the Project for Public Spaces in New York City and a frequent essayist on public art. “The customary approach to public art, which was absolutely the case with Richard Serra, was to put art that’s hard to take in an environment that is inhospitable to the enjoyment of art.”
For Abramson and others in the field, the key to making public art a successful experience is through involving the community, first in planning where the artwork should go, and second in teaching the community about art. Listening to what residents and employees want and don’t want, prodding them to participate in the process of selecting and siting the artwork–this should diminish the likelihood of another Tilted Arc controversy. The larger questions for the rest of us are, Does the effort to lessen controversy affect the art that is picked? Is that good or bad?
The nineties have been a decade in which the arts community has licked the wounds it received during the eighties, but not quite recovered from them.
§ During the late eighties, the National Endowment for the Arts was under siege for its direct or indirect support of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (“homoerotic images”) and Andres Serrano (Piss Christ), as well as its recommended support of some performance artists lumped together collectively as the NEA 4 (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller). The outcome of the affair was repeated efforts to abolish the federal agency; arts supporters have to be satisfied that the NEA survived, although its budget has been reduced by 40 percent and panel recommendations for fellowships to avant-garde artists are regularly struck down by the agency’s chairpersons for reasons of political sensitivity.