Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Old question..."What is art"?

Modern Communication

Terry Allen


"Controversial downtown statue is poised to lose its perch"


Lynn Horsely

July 19th, 2011

The Kansas City Star

When the sculpture of a man with a shoe in his mouth went up 15 years ago outside Kansas City’s police communications headquarters, it sparked both praise and scorn.

Now “Modern Communication,” which cost $78,000 when it was installed, needs to be removed — and possibly relocated.

Which is likely to prompt more modern communication … or at least rekindle a lively debate about the statue itself.

“I like it,” said Pat McInerney, president of the Board of Police Commissioners. “I think it’s great irony … in front of a communications building.”

City Councilman Ed Ford has a different take.

“It’s my least favorite public art,” he said. “It’s insulting to so many different folks — the court system, the police. I’ve never liked it.”

Artist Terry Allen’s sculpture at 11th and Locust streets depicts a businessman standing on top of a briefcase, with a tie covering his eyes, a shoe in his mouth and fingers in his ears.

It was one of the earliest pieces of public art commissioned after the city’s “One Percent for Art” program got going in the early 1990s.

And it quickly provoked an argument over the nature, quality and value of public art.

Former City Councilwoman Aggie Stackhaus, who served on the council in 1995, recalls how she was horrified by the selection of the piece.

“That artist finally found someone stupid enough to pay him $78,000 for a statue sitting in his garage,” she said recently. “Why did we need to put up a statue that makes people mad?”

Stackhaus concedes not everyone shares her opinion of the work. “I go round and round with my art friends,” she said.

The city’s contract in 1995 stipulated that the work would not be removed from public display or destroyed for 15 years.

But that deadline has passed, and now the piece must be removed to make way for a renovation and enhancement to the nearby Police Headquarters.

So what happens to “Modern Communication” now?

“It certainly is a great piece in the city’s collection, and I think it behooves the city to keep it,” said Porter Arneill, the city’s public art administrator.

Stackhaus couldn’t disagree more.

“You don’t want to know where I’d put it,” she said.

So far there’s no consensus on where the sculpture should go next.

Under the artist’s contract, the city can give it back to Allen, put it in storage or move it to a new public place — with the artist’s approval.

Even some critics of the city’s public art program don’t think it should just be mothballed, saying that would be disrespectful to the artist and to the people who love the piece.

“I don’t think we should just tear it down,” said former Councilman Bill Skaggs, who wasn’t shy about questioning public art commissions when he served on the council. “I would be opposed to just doing away with it.”

The challenge is that the piece was built specifically for the police communications building, to make a whimsical statement about the human condition and modern communications technology.

Former Police Maj. Vince McInerney, who served as police liaison on the selection panel that chose the piece, said he and the rest of the panel saw it as a humorous, light-hearted take on contemporary public discourse.

“It was supposed to deliver a poignant message that in modern times, communication often gets lost,” McInerney recalled. “It encourages people to open up and listen to each other.”

But he concedes that, at the time, he took some good-natured ribbing from the police chief and other officers, some of whom had an immediate emotional reaction that it was a slap at the police.

Supporters say insulting police was never Allen’s intent.

Now the city must try to find another appropriate location for a work designed for a particular space and purpose.

“When a piece of artwork connected to its location gets disconnected, finding a new home is not that easy,” Arneill said. “We hope to find a site that works for everybody.”

Allen, who is based in Santa Fe, N.M., said in an email to The Star last week that he had just been made aware of the situation.

There’s no rush to make a decision. The actual construction on the headquarters expansion, which will displace the sculpture, isn’t scheduled to start until spring. The project will put a new police board/community room on the existing plaza where the statue now stands.

Of course, the headquarters renovation and expansion contains its own “One Percent for Art” provision, so there’s still plenty of opportunity for more public art controversy.

The One Percent set-aside as part of that new project is estimated at $225,000. A selection panel will interview the four finalists for that new piece of art on July 29.

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