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Friday, November 20, 2020


 Renoir or Gauguin?  Huh?

Public Art has always been difficult for me.  Sometimes I enjoy it and see purpose, but most of the time I do not.  I have a real hard time justifying the expense when a city has more pressing needs.  Pressing in my mind anyway.

That is the problem.  Who gets to decide what is more important?  Pot holes or a painted mural? Helping the homeless or erecting a sculpture?  Public art, while commendable, does not hold up to the harsh demand for dollars.  Okay, maybe those without a car would take the mural.

But, here’s the kicker:

Louis Armstrong by Eduardo Kobra - New Orleans
No, this isn't one of the projects we selected

Against impossible odds, I received a request to serve as a panelist for a series of public art projects in my community?  This was so unbelievable that I questioned it when they called to make sure I received the invitation.  Were they serious?  It turns out that in the past, panels with only members of the local art community received gruesome criticism.  This “misuse of public funds” landed at the feet of the elected officials.  The opponents insisted that “normal” people be included.  Surely the funds would not get spent poorly, or at all, if someone with business experience had a say in the matter.

I agreed to serve without thinking.  An all too common error on my part.  If I had thought about it, the potential for public outcry and derogatory media attention might have crossed my mind.  One of the elected officials saw my name on the list and called me to make sure I understood the original invitation.  It turns out, they gave their staff my name so I could recommend a “Common Man” to serve, not serve myself.  Now this was awkward.  Neither of us knew what to do next.  They didn’t want to say they didn’t want me to do it, and I couldn’t bring myself to back out.  It was what one might have called a Mexican Standoff long ago… today we just call it a stalemate, I guess.  

The first round of selections involved sifting through portfolios submitted by over 100 artists.     If it is not already apparent, I’m a few feet short at the wrong end of a swimming pool.  It turns out Art can be a lot of things not resembling the Art I few up with.  I suppose if we have the New Math, we can have the New Art.  The good news is that almost half were easy to turn away for subject matter (violence, blood, freaky, drug inspired, etc.).  From the Common Man perspective, that is.  The others were much more difficult to assess.

Each panelist submitted electronic ballots of our top three artists.  The list got smaller, and we did it again…. and again, until there were three remaining artists.  They asked these finalists to present their work to the panel in-person.  No longer could I hide behind secret ballots over the internet.  This was going to be serious panel work, my friends!  Like Dancing with the Stars or American Idol.  Okay, not like those at all.

As expected, the panel turned out to be an odd mix of individuals.  My suit and tie drew stares and was not very befitting of my Common Man role.  I’d have dressed “down” if I would have known what the art scene crowd might wear on a Tuesday morning at 9 AM.

As each artist made their presentations, one thing became evident.  Everyone in that room saw the world much differently than I did.  The vision and purpose expressed by each artist was quite inspiring.  How could they look at a grain silo and see that?  Viewing life from an artist’s angle sure makes the world look a lot more interesting.

And I could see their passion.  Much was explained to me, but I felt a genuine connection and understanding and appreciation for it.  Yeah, me, the Common Man.  At that point, I felt bad about my participation on the panel.  They intended for me to raise questions on the sanity of the expenditure, not opacity of the image.  I failed to represent the opposition.  Public Art was happening.  Now.  I was unprepared and unwilling to stop it.

It took some time, but we were able to select a unique artist for each project.  We cast aside the secret ballot and just talked about each artist and their work.  We expressed what we liked or did not.  How we felt the piece was a fit for the location or was not.  There we were, a half-dozen people from different backgrounds and cultures agreeing on something.  Unanimously.  Without hate.  With respect.

Huh, I wasn’t sure that was possible anymore.  There may just be some hope for all of us.  Looks like those pot holes won’t be getting fixed.

Run in Peace, Rest in Grace