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Flying Blind: The Art at DIA is mostly DOA.

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Pity Denver. It's the Rodney Dangerfield of American cities--it can't get no respect. Regardless of what's done here, negative national attention seems to follow. DIA is the most recent case in point. The new airport is nationally renowned not for its radical and dramatic design or its cutting-edge technology, but rather for its delayed opening, its cost overruns, its plummeting bond values, its cracking floors, its notorious baggage system and its pending legal troubles.

Less infamous, but equally unfortunate, is the airport's ambitious but poorly planned public-art project. And the fault for this failure, as with all the others, lies completely within the political process.

It was in 1988 that then-Denver mayor Federico Pena launched a public-art program in which city projects costing $1 million or more would include a 1 percent set-aside for art. From the start, the program, under the direction of Greg Geissler, engendered certain problems. The most obvious was the site-specific mandate, which created a "Gee, where can we put some art?" approach that led to bizarre placement choices.

At the airport, members of various committees looked at plans--with little apparent understanding of them--and came up with what they felt were appropriate places for art. Typically, they were wrong. At DIA, large works are often in tight spaces, small works lost in immense ones.

In 1991 Wellington Webb was elected mayor and decided to continue the public-art program. Geissler was replaced by Joyce Oberfeld. Whereas Geissler was well-known and respected in the art world, Oberfeld had no such conflict of interest. Better known was Jennifer Murphy, a former gallery owner originally hired by Pena and appointed by Webb as director of the new DIA art-program office.

In a recent article for the trade journal Public Art Review, Murphy pins the blame for problems with art at DIA on the project's architects. Murphy's article refers to a concept she first espoused at a 1993 meeting of the Mayor's Commission on Art, Culture and Film (MCACF). At that time, she suggested that in the future, public art should be commissioned before--not after--a project is built. In this way, she said, the architects would be forced to design around the art. Given her job, it's not surprising that her head was in the clouds, but the real truth is that Murphy simply didn't know what she was doing.

Murphy is also shameless. Despite the fact that she has used her DIA experience to launch a career for herself--she's become a public-art administrator in North Carolina (Denver's gain is Charlotte's loss)--she has denied responsibility for any of the many failures over which she presided.

But if Murphy was out of her depth, so were most of the more than 200 people involved in a bureaucratic tangle of airport-art committees, where even those with only marginal art knowledge were outnumbered by politicos and activists by a ratio of ten to one.

This lack of expertise--disingenuously labeled "inclusion"--is something that DIA's art steering committee has pointed to with pride. Yet it would never have occurred to the powers that be to allow community input to outweigh technical skill in engineering the baggage system (imagine how long that fiasco would have taken to fix if they had).

Since most of the participants in the process were strangers to art, it's hardly surprising that so many of their decisions make so little sense. In a triumph of opportunism, for example, nationally renowned sculptor Luis Jimenez was awarded a commission for "Mustang," a thirty-foot-tall blue horse with orange eyes that is not yet and may never be completed. In the same cynical vein is "Pivot Emblem," by Lewis "Buster" Simpson and Sherry Wiggins, which is supposed to be about farming but instead looks like a baseball diamond. One wonders why, with these transparent references to the Broncos and the Rockies, the Nuggets were left out.

Another good example of the degradation of art was the appointment of Wilma Webb as the chair of the MCACF in spite of the fact that she lacked appropriate credentials. But the First Lady did have a flair for drama, calling in 1993 for a moratorium on public art so that the percentage produced by minority artists could be increased. She later stepped down and was replaced by the current chair, KUSA-TV president Joe Franzgrote, who likewise lacks credibility in the visual arts.

Not all the participants in the political process were divorced from the art world: Some were artists or others who stood to make commissions. The African-American art group ULOZI, headed by Irvin Wheeler, was one of the late entries awarded a commission as a result of Wilma Webb's moratorium. Wheeler served on the public-art subcommittee. Another late entry included because of the moratorium was the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC). CHAC director Rick Manzanares was a member of the MCACF at the time. (Neither the ULOZI nor the CHAC artworks are yet in place.) Other commissioned artists with ties to the selection process included William Maxwell, Antonette Rosato, Ken Iwamasa and Simpson and Wiggins.

Another problem that had its origins in the Geissler era was the notion that the request for proposals should not be limited to local art but should instead be sent out nationally. With this one gesture, the possibility of the airport providing a showcase for regional art evaporated. Yet would anyone, even the members of the mayor's arts commission, argue that the results reflect the best art in America? Hardly. Unlike the aforementioned site problems, this prejudice against local art can most likely be laid at the feet of the few participants who did have art experience. Many of the assorted committee members were affiliated both formally and informally with the Denver Art Museum, which has long been known for its antipathy to hometown artists--and the project's national focus has the DAM written all over it.

Given this, it's interesting to note that the handful of first-rate pieces at DIA are mostly the work of locals: David Griggs, Betty Woodman, Gary Sweeney and two collaborative teams, Iwamasa and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith and Maxwell and Rosato. (Of this group, only Smith lived outside the state when the work was created; since that time, Sweeney, a baggage handler for Continental Airlines, has left the area.)

Griggs uses transportation as the subject for his knockout installation "Dual Meridian." Among the three artists who created works for the common areas of the airport's three sprawling concourses, Griggs alone was equal to occupying the ungainly space. Elements including an exquisitely executed map of the world, railroad tracks, satellite receivers and a rocket have been expressed in a variety of materials such as stone, miscellaneous metals and even aggregates.

Woodman's beautiful pair of "Balustrades" suffer from their poor placement--they're monumental for ceramics yet look minuscule in the main terminal. Woodman is one of the greatest living artists working in clay, and the "Balustrades," which are typical of her work, attempt to reconcile two of the most important traditions in ceramics--the Oriental and the Mediterranean. (Sadly, these key works have already been damaged; the wing of one of the vertical supports is now in several pieces, which at last word nobody had bothered to pick up.)

"America...Why I Love Her" is vintage Sweeney. Two maps of the United States, each paired with a photo-mural, are dotted with weird true-life landmarks and roadside attractions. The imagery is reminiscent of Sixties pop art, with stylistic references to the kind of quirky places Sweeney depicts. The techniques employed include routing, wood-dyeing and sign-painting--all of which exemplify Sweeney's interest in fine craftsmanship. "America...Why I Love Her," which refers to both Denver and travel, is funny, smart and appropriate.

The "Great Hall Floor"--yes, it's actually the floor--by Iwamasa and Smith is subtle and understated, and it's the only one of the three sets of artist-designed floors that can be termed a success. Predominantly cream-colored, it is accented by beautiful earth tones. It includes simple metal pictographs embedded in the terrazzo that reflect the history of Colorado. The floor was intended to tie in with Anna Valentina Murch's "Sky Dance," a light sculpture which is still not in place, and "Mountain Mirage," by Doug Hollis, a fountain that likely will never be. The art steering committee has expressed its dissatisfaction with Iwamasa and Smith's floor and has even withheld part of the artists' commission--a snub that more accurately should be read as an endorsement of the piece's quality. And lamentably, a crudely done repair job already compromises the integrity of this work: The crew used white terrazzo in lieu of cream to fill a huge crack.

Playing with the physics of one of the underground train tunnels is the delightful and intelligent "Kinetic Light Air Curtain," by Maxwell and Rosato, in which stainless-steel propellers mounted on the tunnel walls spin as the air of the train rushes by. A series of lights are also activated by the subway cars. With this work, the artists fully realized the potential of this seemingly impossible space.

And that's it. Five truly first-rate pieces produced from a budget of more than $7 million.

There are a number of genuine embarrassments at DIA, too, including "Fenceline Artifact," by Simpson and Wiggins, a thin idea poorly carried out (though in fairness, an intended landscape element has not yet been installed). Terry Allen's badly modeled and unbelievably stupid "Notre Denver" features bronze gargoyles seated in open suitcases. Last and definitely least is Leni Schwendinger's amateurish and ill-conceived "Deep Time/Deep Space," the other tunnel piece.

Perhaps the real benchmark of the lost opportunities at DIA is the fact that the insipid "Elrey Jeppesen" statue by George Lundeen--a work that was privately funded--is clearly in the top half of the works on display.

It's tempting at this point to make suggestions as to how the process could be changed to correct its many flaws. The city could hire a curator, it could work to increase participation by those with art-world know-how, it could replace bureaucratic reality with reason. None of those approaches, though, would undo the damage already done. It may sound trite, but the airport art program was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will be a very long time before Denver again has the chance to spend millions of dollars on public art. After seeing how that money was spent at DIA, I was deeply moved--in fact, I felt like crying.

Michael Paglia is Westword's new art critic.

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