Arts and Culture

Reader: Enough of This Crap in Denver's Public Arts Program!

Denver is proud of its public-art program, and new pieces are being added all the time, including along RTD's A Line from Union Station to Denver International Airport. But the program definitely has its critics, including Georgia Amar, co-founder of Denver's Art District on Santa Fe, who shared this assessment with us:
Public art in Denver is, at best, mediocre in most instances. It is neither aesthetic nor inspiring. It has no meaning and is devoid of any message. It fails to engage. It does not reflect the spirit, intelligence and sensitivity of Denverites.

I was recently at a meeting in the McNichols building, where I noticed another blue blob of metal at the entrance. It visually interrupts the flow of an elegant and beautiful building — it looks more like a blemish then a sculpture. It may even be better to have no public art than to have all of this non-descript “so-called” art imposed on us.

Denver is not the only city that struggles with public art. A noticeable example of poorly executed public art is the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington D.C. While the concept is commendable, the sculpture, which was constructed in China, does not bring to life the spirit of Dr. King; the construction is clunky and inappropriate for its surroundings. The imposing sculpture looks more like a dictator — Mao Tse-tung or Stalin — than a civil rights leader. When the production of art is exported to outsiders, it loses the qualities that make it relevant and meaningful to its intended audience and surroundings.

Another pathetic selection for public art is Union Station. According to the text for the competition, the theme was supposed to be something that relates to transportation. Instead, an amateur scene from the Arctic was selected. Besides being misled, what does transport and the Arctic have anything to do with each other? We are in Colorado, not Alaska. We are supposed to promote our state!

I have spent the past ten years with my husband creating and running Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe, to give Denver and Colorado artists a platform to exhibit their work and improve their chances to succeed in their fields. As are many artists and citizens in this city, I am frustrated with the extremely poor choices made by the people who select public art. To add insult to injury, most of the public art is given to out-of-state artists. It is very clear to me that the selections are made even before the competitions are advertised, as I have experienced this system myself. The opaque nature of public art competition is totally counterproductive and against the spirit we are trying to achieve for Denver. It also deprives the citizens of Denver of the possibility of greater and better public artworks.  A lack of change to this opaque system will be detrimental to the art scene in Denver. There will be a tremendous loss to the city and its artistic community. We have for the past ten years been nurturing and educating thousands of young people in the art district alone (26,400 people annually, including 16,000 students from grades one to twelve as well as college students and adults interested in art, music, dance, theater, martial arts and culinary arts).

Most talented artists in Denver that I know and have spoken to have stopped entering competitions because they all know that it is a useless investment of their time to pursue them. This is because the choices appear to be made in advance and tend to go to out-of-state artists. The same pre-determined decision-making is true for in-state artists as well, as commissions are given to the same Denver artists year after year. The idea of focusing on the art in Denver is to create a unique culture and sensitivity that reflects who we are, not some pre-made import which doesn’t belong or fit here. We as local artists and creatives deserve the chance to prove ourselves. When challenged, we will deliver art that truly will inspire everyone and reflect the great character of the state of Colorado.

The rules for deciding how to select and who should do the selecting must be radically changed or the spirit of what we want for the future of Denver’s art scene will be deflated and may even cease to exist. We will lose everything we have created in the past ten years if no action is taken immediately. The people who are currently in charge of public art should be replaced by individuals with extensive knowledge of art and architecture. Alternately, public works should be selected by a panel of peers, not just an appointed city official. At least 75 precent of public art should be designed and created by local artists.

Recommendations: 1. Harmonize rules across city agencies regarding the selection of public art. As it stands, different city agencies operate under different rules. 2. Individuals in charge of overseeing building projects and construction of public art should be recused from the final selection process of which works get built. The current system leads to serious conflicts of interest, and could lead to nepotism. 3. The jurors who select winners in public art competitions should have their names publicized during the competition. 4. The jurors themselves should contain three distinct groups: a) 30 percent of the jury should be local artists — a jury of artists’ peers. b) 30 percent of the jury should be art experts, such as historians, curators, etc. c) 30 percent of the jury should be members of the public. This group should be invited to vote on the final selection of the public art after a public display of finalists. The name of the artists should be withheld in the final choice. This is a standard practice in many urban design projects across the world. d) The jurors should be term limited, so that we don't end up stuck with the same choices over time.

Public art in Denver is geared to community standards which are very poor to begin with and don't serve anyone even those they intent to represent. We have to go beyond amateur work in public places. Enough of this crap!
What do you think of Georgia Amar's assessment of Denver's public arts program? What piece do you like the most? Dislike the most?
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