Civic art gives some a headache - 1/2/01 [an error occurred while processing this directive]


Monday, January 1, 2001

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Copyright 2001
The Detroit News.

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Civic art gives some a headache
Giant fist, joined heads: costly eyesores or good deal?

Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

Sculptor Janice Trimpe puts the finishing touches on clay figures at her Grosse Pointe Park studio. The city of Roseville plans to use the work at City Hall.

Public art
With flush budgets and the desire to stand out from their neighbors, some Metro Detroit communities are anxious to add artwork to their parks and public spaces. But it's not easy to find a piece of art, or even a topic, that everyone can agree upon.
   * Kmart gave Troy an unusual bronze sculpture entitled Corporate Head. City officials are now scratching their own heads to determine what to do with it.
   * Mt. Clemens is placing four sculptures in its downtown.
   * Roseville recently commissioned a statue.
   * Sterling Heights and Birmingham are planning to add more art to public venues.
   * A statue of Detroit founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac will be unveiled in July in Hart Plaza.
By Joel Kurth / The Detroit News

    TROY -- A huge juxtaposition of bronze heads that defies easy description sits in storage here and may become the latest casualty between politics and public sensibilities.
   Some Troy officials admit they're baffled about Corporate Head, a two-story sculpture depicting interlocking craniums that some find intimidating. It graced Kmart headquarters for three decades, but executives seeking a spiffier image gave the work to Troy this fall.
   Officially, Troy is delighted, but the mood may become less gracious in the next few months when the City Council tries to figure out what to do with the thing.
   "There was hesitation from some about whether we should accept it," said Councilman Anthony Pallotta, who won't say what he thinks of the big head. "Some look at it and say 'how ugly.' Others think 'oooh, it's so beautiful.' The sticking point will be where it will be located, whether to put it in the woods somewhere between the trees or in front of the Civic Center for all to see."
   Corporate Head is as good a symbol as any for the paradox of public art in Metro Detroit. Seeking to add character and enhance civic reputations, more suburbs are buying sculptures during these good economic times. Often, though, staid sensibilities make them tough political sells.
   Mt. Clemens is in the middle of a program that has added four downtown sculptures in two years.
   Roseville recently commissioned a statue, while Sterling Heights and Birmingham are planning more public art. Private donations, meanwhile, are funding a statue of Detroit founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, which will be unveiled in July in Hart Plaza. Grosse Pointe Park sculptor Janice Trimpe said business from cities is better than ever.
   Still, rows in the past few years have some skittish about alienating taxpayers with stuff that inspires love-hate relationships.
   Many in Royal Oak are still steamed about a 40-foot-tall naked couple next to City Hall and the library that cost $700,000, even though private contributions paid for most of it. Birmingham dramatically scaled back its commitment after a $300,000 debacle over plans for a 300-foot-long, 35-foot-high sculpture along Woodward.
   And that's just the suburbs. Don't get Detroiters started about the Joe Louis fist, which still inspires vigorous debates about its esthetics and political implications 14 years after Sports Illustrated gave it to the city.
Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

"Star Dream Fountain" debuted in Royal Oak in 1997, and residents are still are divided over the nude figures gracing the front of the Civic Center.

Community investment
   "As affluent as Troy is, we should have more public art," Mayor Jeanne Stine said. "We were so busy working and planning the city that we put amenities behind us. But you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Everyone's not going to appreciate it the same way. You open yourself up to criticism about spending taxes. It's difficult to justify that kind of money when people are complaining about roads."
   Advocates argue that art is a comparatively small investment in a community. Statues usually cost $100,000 or less, and last longer and create a homier feel than street resurfacings, which cost 10 times as much or more.
   The state wants more civic art, but sometimes has trouble finding takers. This year, the Michigan Council for the Arts provided $60,000 total in grants to Roseville, Grand Rapids and Mt. Clemens. It sought a partnership with a consortium to fund more projects, but none answered the call.
   "We're seeing a revival now because times are good," said Maura Campbell, a spokeswoman for the arts council. "We're trying to change people's attitudes to make them feel strongly that art adds value to the quality of life no matter the economic climate. Realistically, that's when most want to take care of the essentials."
Art brings life
   Arts boosters wish all projects inspired as many warm and fuzzy feelings as the effort under way in Mt. Clemens.
   Using a mix of mostly private funds, the Art Center in Macomb County has decorated the redeveloped downtown with sculptures of a tall glass tower, a 24-foot-high chair, oversized seats emblazoned with slogans and a sculpture of a chubby old man playing checkers with a girl.
   Another, $50,000 sculpture will be unveiled this spring. Some of the pieces have arched eyebrows, but most are cheering the additions. Trimpe, who made Apple of My Eye, said residents are so attached to her sculpture they knit socks for the characters. Trimpe also is sculpting a family for Roseville.
   "People have recognized art brings life into community and helps identify them," said Jo-Anne Wilkie, executive director of the Art Center. "It's nice to have plowed streets, interesting stores, businesses and cafes. But does that tell you what the community is about? Art gives glimpses into the souls of the community."
   With every success, though, there's a Royal Oak. The trendy city hasn't bought a single piece since Star Dream Fountain debuted in 1997.
   Crafted by the late Marshall Fredericks of Birmingham -- one of Michigan's most renowned sculptors and the creator of Spirit of Detroit -- the fountain is jeered as tacky by critics and pornographic by conservatives.
David Coates / The Detroit News

"County Seat," another Mt. Clemens sculpture, is part of the city's five-year beautification program, which has added four pieces of art.

   "It's distasteful," resident Thomas Springer said. "It's in poor taste, especially in front of a library where children go. It belongs in another city."
   For the first time since plans crashed and burned in 1996 to build a massive roller coaster-type structure along Woodward, Birmingham officials once again are talking about using tax dollars for sculptures along the thoroughfare.
   The statuary under consideration will be more restrained than the failed Gateway Sculpture, said spokeswoman Patty McCullough. She refused to say what -- if anything -- the city learned from the controversy.
What to do?
   As one of the richest -- and largest -- suburbs in southeast Michigan, Troy has precious little public art. Besides the undisplayed Corporate Head, the city of 81,000 has two pieces, one of which was donated in the last few weeks by Lebanese merchants.
   Stine, the mayor, acknowledged she's slightly ashamed by the poor showing and said the city may soon consider funding more art. Proudly tight-pocketed city officials met with silence a similar suggestion by a committee three years ago.
   Then there's Corporate Head.
   British sculptor Michael Ayrton's creation depicts two large heads divided by a mirror with several smaller heads inside that's supposed to represent the inner workings and teams within teams of large companies.
   Stine loves it and wants the titanic testament to corporate brainpower in front of the library. Troy spokeswoman Cindy Stewart acknowledges some find it overwhelming. Pallotta just chuckles.
   "What can you say?" he asked. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
David Coates / The Detroit News

JoAnne Wilkie, executive director of The Art Center in Mt. Clemens, poses next to "Apple of My Eye." Metro Detroit communities are discovering that public art is a cheap way to add soul to the suburbs.


You can reach Joel Kurth at (313) 222-2192 or