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Public Art Sellout

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Is the state of Illinois about to try selling off its public art? (Perhaps they didn’t notice how well that went for Detroit.) A years-long, back-and-forth, will-they-won’t-they over the possible sale and demolition of Chicago’s Helmut Jahn-designed Thompson Center leaves the status of approximately 150 state-owned works of art in limbo.

Jean Dubuffet's 'Monument With Standing Beast' is public art, owned by the state of Illinois.
Jean Dubuffet’s ‘Monument With Standing Beast’ outside Chicago’s Thompson Center. CREDIT: Chicago Architecture Today, CC BY 2.0

The seventeen-story building, now named for former Illinois governor James Thompson, primarily houses offices for the state government. It has certainly seen better days. Maintenance has been spotty. It’s hard to heat and cool. It’s reportedly rife with cockroaches, rats, and, at one point, bedbugs. There’s an awkwardly-set-up security station that you must pass through if you’d like to use the elevators at all. The once-bright blue and red colors look faded, leaving it looking rather dated as a product of its ’80s heritage.

However, it does have its merits. The building has been designated by the nonprofit group Landmarks Illinois as one of the state’s most endangered buildings for multiple years running. There has been enough enthusiasm behind its preservation that an entire plan for its redevelopment has been proposed. The atrium is gloriously expansive. It houses the city’s second-busiest transit station. While DMV may not really be seen as a plus, this is a really convenient location for one. There’s a food court for while you’re waiting on state business… and who sees those any more?

It’s an easily-recognizable meeting spot for locals and tourists alike (shelter from the sun, rain and snow!). It is home to nineteen specially commissioned pieces of public art funded by the State of Illinois Art-in-Architecture Program, as well as a gallery devoted primarily to the art of state residents. Area artisans also set up tables in the expansive skylit rotunda and occupy first-floor shops to sell their creations. And it’s got the largest concentration of public art in the state of Illinois, about 150 pieces. So maybe we don’t need to go flipping its proverbial table just yet.

Also Effing Golden

The building’s sale first came up for discussion over a decade ago. The initial proposal was made under the tenure of the infamously “golden,” Senate-seat-selling governor Rod Blagojevich. In the years that followed, the topic came up again and again until last summer. That’s when the state legislature approved a bill that would allow current governor Bruce Rauner to finally sell the “spaceship-shaped glitter palace.” Ever since, artists, curators, and conservationists alike have speculated about the fate of the collection.

Would it be sold? Moved to another state building, or perhaps a museum? Put into storage, to be never seen again… or lost for 15 years? That’s certainly a hazard of public art! There’s loads of enthusiasm when new pieces are installed, but far less when they need maintenance, repair, or relocation. Paintings go missing, sculptures get broken, murals are painted over. Hell, we’ve still got a statue of Alexander Hamilton that’s been missing since it was moved before Millennium Park opened in 2004.

Who Watches the Watch…art?

Part of the issue, some believe, is that much of the Thompson Center’s public art is… not really public. As a normal human going about your day, you can really only see about a dozen pieces in the spaces that are open to everyone. The rest is nominally “on display,” but on upper levels of the building that are only accessible by passing through building security. It’s hard to drum up enthusiasm for something you don’t even know exists.

Another challenge of predicting the fate of these artworks is that the art itself belongs to the state, too. The collection, including several valuable pieces by the increasingly-popular Chicago Imagists, was purchased using funds from Illinois’ “Percent for Art“/Art-in-Architecture program. The program’s purpose is “promotion and preservation of the arts by securing suitable works of art for the adornment of public buildings constructed or subjected to major renovation by the State or which utilize State funds, and thereby reflecting our cultural heritage, with emphasis on the works of Illinois artists.

In a nutshell, the program works thusly: when there is a large-scale construction or renovation project funded by the state, the Capital Development Board reserves 1.33% of the construction cost to purchase public art. The money cannot be used for another purpose; If it isn’t used for art, it isn’t used at all. No more than 20% of funds allocated to a particular piece may be used for maintenance and administrative costs. Currently, 28 states and territories have some sort of similar program…how great is that?

In what may be a rather odd irony, Illinois’ funding program was instituted by then-governor James Thompson, for whom the Thompson Center was named, in 1977.

This Art Was Made for You and Me

Now, one might argue that the fact that the art belongs to the state means that the artwork belongs to the people of the state. That might also indicate that the people should have a say in what becomes of that art. But as elsewhere today, whether a vote for elected officials counts as “having a say” remains to be seen. Can you rely on your representatives to pay attention to some art they’ve never seen? And, the sale of the building isn’t even a sure thing yet.

But we’ve all noticed, particularly in the last year and a half, that we should take nothing for granted. Even for something as seemingly “small” as a nearly-invisible art collection, we ought to be paying attention. Watching the decision-makers. Getting into those filing cabinets at the bottom of basement stairs inside disused lavatories with signs on the doors about leopards. Because they’re certainly not going to do anything silly like tell you about it.

In this instance, the associate curator of art for Illinois declined to respond to a query from Crain’s about the Thompson Center collection, claiming that it “is too sensitive of an issue”  and citing the “current political climate.”

Art is political. Make your voice heard.

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