Special/Signature Issues » Family Style

Art On Trial

When it comes to public art, just who's the arbiter of Richmond taste? A tale of the $120,000 sculpture that didn't fly.



You may know this: Richmond and Manchester once were separate entities.

You may not know this: When the two cities merged in 1910 Manchester residents, just south of the river from Shockoe Slip, didn't altogether trust their neighbors to the north. So they placed some caveats in the agreement. Richmond was to build a modern, toll-free bridge across the James River at Mayo Island. Taxes collected from Manchester would be deposited in South Side banks. And the courthouse at 920 Hull St. would continue to hear local cases in perpetuity.

The merger's 100th anniversary next year will see the completion of a remodeled and expanded Manchester Courthouse and some kind of public ceremony. But don't expect to find public sculpture on the site funded by Richmond's popular and successful One Percent for the Arts program.

Apparently, Manchester's three judges think about as much of aesthetic tastes from north of the river as their predecessors trusted Richmond's capacity for honest tax collecting and delivering justice. It's not in their job description, but last month General District Court Judges D. Eugene Cheek, Phillip L. Hairston and Gregory L. Rupe squelched plans for a proposed 30-foot ebullient and glitzy sculpture by Philadelphia artist Ray King, whose work is collected internationally.
The Public Art Commission had voted unanimously to install the piece in a landscaped plaza at the southeast corner of Hull and Ninth streets. To be placed just steps from the courthouse's new front, a classical portico, it was envisioned as a reflective and illuminated beacon — visible from up and down Hull Street and Commerce Road as well as the James River bridges — to signal a new day for a hardscrabble neighborhood.

The court was unimpressed.

“It was not appropriate,” says David M. Hicks, clerk of the Manchester court. “Maybe in Las Vegas or in front of a big shopping center, but the judges were adamant: They weren't going to have that sculpture in front of the courthouse.”

“I was stunned,” says Richmond artist and freelance curator Vaughn Garland, who's completing the first year of a three-year appointment as chair of the city's Public Art Commission. “We were excited because it was not just a major site-specific piece for Manchester but also a work for all of Richmond. It was designed to glow. We saw it as symbolizing healing and that the courthouse is a place for the community to gather.”

King's “The Stainless Sphere” design consisted of one spherical structure of stainless steel and laminated glass within a larger 13-foot-diameter sphere, set on a cast-concrete base. It would be a decidedly contemporary addition to an impressive collection of public sculpture in the self-proclaimed City of Monuments, where memorials to Confederate pride and military valor share communal space — in a sometimes uneasy face-off — with tributes to civil rights and race relations.

But the recent brouhaha raises interesting issues. Who are the arbiters of taste here for public art? And should three judges determine where a specific, public-funded piece of art is — or in this situation, isn't — placed?

Richmond has been distinguished by and known for outdoor sculpture since 1858, when the equestrian statue of George Washington by artist Thomas Crawford was shipped from Germany and installed in Capitol Square.

By the turn of the last century, it was Confederate-themed works that marked intersections, parks and cemeteries.

But times and power bases change, and because history belongs to those living, one of the city's first monuments of the 21st century marks the 200th anniversary of the end of international slave trafficking: the Slavery Reconciliation Statue near Shockoe Bottom. Another salutes Virginia's civil-rights leaders: the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at Capitol square.

Also, since the late 20th century, contemporary artworks — not necessarily historical or commemorative — have been placed in public places with increasing frequency. The patrons are usually corporations and developers who situate generic and abstract artworks — “plop art” — near major approaches to their buildings as a way to humanize otherwise deadening and minimalist architectural settings. Two examples of the genre in the financial district are sculptor Robert Engman's silver-and-blue “Quadrature” at the SunTrust building and Lloyd Lillie's depiction of muscular male nudes hoisting sails in “Wind's Up” at the James Center.

There are also temporary public-art installations. The Arts Council of Richmond used to sponsor temporary exhibits in such venues as the Richmond International Airport, empty downtown store windows and arts festivals as well as the ubiquitous Go Fish project. But in 1996, under the Arts Council's leadership and then-City Manager Robert Bobb's advocacy, art in public places was institutionalized with a One Percent for the Arts program. It allocates 1 percent of the cost of city-sponsored construction projects to commission artwork specifically for that site. (School buildings are excluded.)

Among the most recognized public art from this program are “Skyrider,” a multimedia piece suspended from the Interstate 95 bridge in Shockoe Bottom, across the street from Main Street Station, and “The Thin Blue Line” by Michael Stutz, a metal-mesh depiction of a police officer's head that glares from the police headquarters buildings at East Grace and Jefferson streets.

“It's become an icon, it's a meeting place,” says Sally Bowring of “Thin Blue Line.” Bowring is a Richmond artist and member of the City Public Art Commission who spearheaded the initial public art projects back in 1996. She says the wall sculpture at police headquarters exemplifies public art at its best. “It helps identify the building and has become a part of the personality of the neighborhood,” she says.

It's also outdoors. Although a number of successful and handsome public artworks have been placed inside city buildings, Bowring thinks the greater the exposure to the citizenry the better. “I wanted art to be out in public and not in the boardrooms,” she says. “I insisted that stuff started coming outside.”

In determining how to spend $120,000 on a public-art commission at the Manchester courthouse site, there was nothing unusual in how the 12-person Public Art Commission approached its task (the City Planning Commission appoints each member to a three-year, renewable term).

The art commission's site-selection committee consisted of two members, including Garland and Sarah Shields Driggs, who's written books about the city's historic neighborhoods. Other committee members were Lu Guy Lanier, landscape architect of the courthouse plaza; community representative Laura Bryant; courthouse architectural designer Claes Tholand; Catherine Easterling from the city's department of community development; and David M. Hicks, representing the Manchester court.

For Garland the assignment marked an exciting chance to build on public art projects he'd previously undertaken in Manchester. He certainly knew the territory as well as anyone after serving as instigator and co-curator of the “Richmond Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition,” which was held in Manchester in 2005 and 2006. For each exhibit he had pinpointed potential spaces and then persuaded property owners to allow their parking spaces, vacant lots, or even drainage ditches to become temporary venues for site-specific art. Where others saw urban neglect and decay, Garland and participating artists saw aesthetic and transformative potential. The two consecutive sculpture exhibitions attracted hundreds of visitors and illuminated the rusted neighborhood in imaginative and surprising ways.

Also, Manchester in recent years has increasingly emerged as an arts Mecca, with converted industrial spaces finding new life as galleries, studios and living spaces. 

For the courthouse public-art project, once the committee had selected a site adjacent to the courthouse, there was the usual call for entries. About 50 artists responded from across the country. From these submissions the selection committee picked four proposals for further consideration.

Then the full committee convened for a meeting at the Banquet Place, an event space near the courthouse. Among those present was Hicks, Manchester clerk of court. But apparently the three judges he represented were already miffed that they hadn't been included in earlier deliberations.

“They didn't include the powers that be,” Hicks says. “This was the first meeting that I had been to and they had already picked the finalists.”

But Hicks reported back to the courthouse that Ray King's proposal was the first choice among the finalists: “The artists had presented their little things [project proposals] in packets and I took them back to the judges.”

The three judges took one look and reacted the same way, he says: “‘Not in front of our courthouse.’”

When the Planning Commission, which must pass on the art commission's recommendations, heard of the judges' displeasure, it asked the Public Art Commission to meet personally with the tribunal.

On the afternoon of June 1 four commission members, two city staff members and artist Ray King, who'd traveled from Philadelphia, met with the judges in a trailer near the courthouse construction site.

According to the Public Art Commission's meeting notes, King led off by introducing his work and then offered metaphors as to how the piece symbolized balance.

Judge Cheek apparently shot back that justice wasn't as simplistic as balance and suggested that justice was about the dignity of the law. The courthouse design, he pointed out, was austere and therefore allowed the public to respect the law. Cheek then asked King how he intended to tie the challenges that the neighborhood faced to the artwork.

King responded that the sculpture would be “a bright spot in the neighborhood, a beacon of hope.”

Judge Cheek responded that “festive and futuristic” didn't complement the brick and frame courthouse and reportedly called the piece “offensive” from a historic point of view.

This is when Commissioner Sarah Shields Driggs, an architectural historian, joined the discussion. She reminded the judges that the piece was meant to engage people and that it symbolized a neighborhood that was overcoming its challenges.

Judge Rupe retorted: “The average user of the courthouse won't understand how this piece ties to the neighborhood.”

Hicks says the judges were concerned the piece would be vandalized. “I like contemporary art,” he says. “But what they were proposing was not appropriate for the space. It would have been destroyed in no time. That would have been $120,000 down the tube.”

The judges told the commissioners they wanted something that would maintain the dignity of the courthouse. “This space is like Colonial Williamsburg,” one of them explained. “We need something the common man can understand.”

This was apparently too much for artist King: “I see the piece as contemporary. We aren't in a colonial day.”

Judge Rupe shot back: “Why can't we just get a knockoff version of the brass scale of justice? We would prefer that this piece be somewhere else in the city. I'm not big on modern, I don't buy into it. Looks like Epcot to me.”

After 90 minutes of back and forth and things sliding south fast, the public art commissioners asked the judges why they hadn't given input earlier in the process.

They replied that the Public Art Commission hadn't invited them to participate until the final round.

“People who aren't in the legal loop might not realize that judges aren't accustomed to being told what to do,” Hicks says, some weeks after the meeting.

The Public Art Commission says that the courthouse did not respond to its communiquAcs.

This isn't the only recent example of judges applying the brakes on a major public-art project locally. At the new federal courthouse downtown, which opened in the fall, the U.S. General Services Administration proposed a specific piece of contemporary sculpture for the atrium. It was a realistic depiction of a large, all-seeing eye. The judges shot it down. According to a source familiar with the project, the response from the GSA public art officials in Washington to the judges' response was: “‘Oh, those conservative Richmond judges.’ But I thought the judges were sophisticated and had valid criticism. And in no way did the artist's metaphor fit the ‘justice is blind’ context of the setting.”

Richmond isn't unique in its experience with judges rejecting contemporary art. It happens in the most sophisticated art capitals. John Ravenal, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, cites a 1981 conflict in New York City. “Tilted Arc,” a sculpture by Richard Serra, who Ravenal calls “internationally known and one of the most important living artists,” was installed in lower Manhattan at Federal Plaza. A federal judge was among those vehemently opposed to the work. “There was quite an outcry between those people who used the parklike space and those who thought they knew what would work there,” Ravenal says. “But the piece was eventually removed because of community opposition.” 

Area curators agree that it's essential to include constituents in the design process from the earliest stages.

Ashley Kistler, director of the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University, spearheaded one of the city's most ambitious and critically acclaimed public art projects in 2004 when she was curator at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. “In Peace and Harmony: Carver Portraits,” was a presentation of dozens of huge photo murals of Carver neighborhood residents and pupils by internationally known artist Wendy Ewald that were attached to neighborhood buildings and displayed for 18 months.

“There were many preliminary discussions with various constituents — community associations, businesses, residents and folks at Carver Elementary School,” Kistler says. “They had a say before anything else was done. Those conversations took place with the artist and helped shape the final project.”
She says the exhibition was meaningful because it engaged the Carver community on one level while also engaging the broader community. “This is an essential element,” Kistler says. “It was extremely successful on an aesthetic level as well as encompassing a broad public— without dumbing down.”

Balancing community acceptance while offering challenging art should be the goal of public art, the museum's Ravenal says. “It's a thorny issue, I'm sort of ambivalent about public art,” he says. “It makes sense that the recipient — the audience — is pleased and that it speaks to them and addresses their needs. However, if that's the guiding principle you feed the status quo. I want art to encourage people to stretch.

“That's why you bring in the experts who understand quality and content,” he continues, endorsing public art commissions. “Also, they're familiar with the resources that are available.”

“You have to lay the groundwork,” Ravenal says. “It has to be win-win. ... “But it's important that the final project be forward-looking and can stand the test of time. If it's forgettable, come the next revolution it will be melted down for the bronze.”           

Despite the judges' objections, the Public Art Commission agreed unanimously on Friday, June 5, to proceed with commissioning the Ray King piece for the Manchester Courthouse. It was ready to take its recommendation to the Planning Commission for final approval.

By midday, however, an undated letter had been received by the Department of Community Development and Planning from the Manchester court clerk, Hicks.

If the recent meeting between the commissioners and judges had produced no meeting of the minds, now the gloves were off. Stating that he was writing on behalf of the three Manchester judges, Hicks reiterated their objections in writing:

“Would you put a 12-foot chrome filigree ball atop a 12-foot pedestal, looking like it came from Epcot at Disney World, in front of the Virginia State Capital [sic]? Would you put that sculpture on Monument Avenue between the Lee and Jackson Monuments? ... No. Why would you put it in front of the Manchester Courthouse, which was originally erected in 1874, is a historic site, and for which there have been great efforts to preserve its architectural continuity during the previous five expansions? It makes about as much sense as the French placing the gargantuan glass pyramid in front of the Louvre. ...

“While the self-styled art experts, may think it is appropriate, they seem to have taken leave of their historical preservationist senses on this matter. One is left to wonder what they may have come up with had they been asked to erect a large piece of artwork in front of Monticello.”

He concluded by saying the judges “strongly opposed” the proposed sculpture.

The Public Art Commission decided not to place the sculpture at the courthouse.

Incredulous and angry, some art commissioners wanted to soldier on.

“There were people thought that there should be a big fight,” commissioner Bowring says. “As soon as I realized the judges weren't there, I realized there was no use. There was no opportunity for dialogue; there were missed opportunities. ...

“A battle is only good if all parties are engaged,” she says. “What benefit would there be if it was put up in someone's face?”

What next for the “Stainless Sphere”?

“The timing of all this is important because next year marks the centennial of the merger of Manchester and Richmond,” says William Thomas, vice president of the Manchester Civic Association, which was not included in the discussions. “We like that the new courthouse faces the river — the river is the front door of Manchester. And we are for anything that adds decorum to our neighborhood.”

Still committed to the King sculpture, the Public Art Commission has regrouped and is seeking a new location for the work.

“I like the idea of placing it somewhere in Manchester,” Bowring says, a twinkle in her eye. “It would be really nice if it could be seen from the courthouse.” S