The privatization of public art

So how public is our public art anyway? With the case of “Dawn Shadows”, an exuberant steel sculpture by Louise Nevelson at 200 W Madison St.  in Chicago, it depends. It was outside, now it’s inside. Is it still “public”? The building at 200 W Madison was designed by SOM and completed in 1982. Nevelson’s piece was installed on the raised public plaza the next year.

These archival images show a free and proud piece of public art.

In 2006, the property owner, Tishman Speyer decided they needed to jazz up the building. One of their moves was to bring the plaza inside, along with its sculpture. Powell/Kleinschmidt Inc designed the well-detailed space. It even won an AIAChicago Honor Award. That is how these buildings work. To be a “Class A” office building, you gotta have super transparent glass, supported at very few points, almost disappearing, and you gotta be a “Class A” office building to get good law firms as tenants. So to make their building more attractive to current and potential tenants, with little regard to its attractiveness to the average Chicagoan, they put a glass box around a piece of public art. It looks like a caged beast, about to thrash against its box.

As an undergrad at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I read a piece about what constitutes public art. (I am looking for it right now). Among other aspects was the question of whether one can sit on a piece of sculpture. If yes, then it was public art, if no, then it was not, and to demonstrate this idea they showed a picture of “Dawn Shadows” outdoors, with people sitting on it. It was definitely a piece of public art.

The imprisonment in action.

One major change that came with the encasement of the plaza occurred with the perception of the sculpture itself. When a piece is left to the elements, one assumes, it can withstand a little bit of human interaction and we feel free to physically engage with the art. As soon as it becomes protected from the out of doors, we are subconsciously led to believe that it is delicate, discouraging us from getting into contact with it, which is, presumably, what the artist intended.

Dawn Shadows, captured by a fancy box, never to be sat upon again.

But what I find more distressing is the perceptual shift in the nature of the space in which the sculpture now resides. Although the lobby is open to the public, and the security guards are polite and informative, it is decidedly less inviting than an exterior plaza. Of course, the same private rules apply to indoor plazas and outdoor plazas, but once you are inside a building, everything becomes so much more serious. So can you still sit on “Dawn Shadows”? I don’t know, and I didn’t try, but they added some white marble benches along side the sculpture, suggesting that they’d prefer you not to.

"Sit Here" Photo: Scott McDonald, Hedrich Blessing

So there you go, if you subscribe to the theory that public art must, at the least, provide a place to sit down, and I sure do, then Tishman Speyer is guilty of taking art away from the people of Chicago in an attempt to impress and retain tenants. That’s pretty mean spirited, to do that in name of profit, but that is how it is done. I While I can’t stop a property management company like Tishman from doing what they will do, I sure will call them out for effectively privatizing a piece of the “public” realm.  And because much of what we recognize as “public art” is owned by private companies and sits on private property, it important to recognize when this occurs.

One Response to “The privatization of public art”
  1. Andres says:

    As a teenager I started treking in from the suburbs alone to check out Chicago. On one of my first trips I ran into this sculpture. I thought it was pretty neat and decided to go inside and check it out. I was immediately flanked by security and told that I had to leave.

    Good post

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