Having worked on projects on all sides of the public art spectrum, I have come across some work that some might consider “controversial”. As an artist and a public art professional I’ve sometimes been surprised at what people may consider debatable or inappropriate. Recently, I took the job as the Sr. Manager of the public art program for Sea-Tac International Airport- a place with a significant art collection, and in a city that is very well known nationally for it’s public art. Because of Seattle’s reputation, I didn’t think I would come across a contentious installation so quickly.
The bronze log with danger tape was unexpected, but I shouldn’t start there...I’d like to begin with my first run-in with a rebellious airport public art installation. In 2010 while working with Public Art San Antonio, I was brought on to assist with curatorial efforts for the airport’s temporary art program. Peter Zubiate was the artist selected to install in a newly constructed area pre-security. The piece was a beautifully constructed wood installation with one little detail that happen to stand out- a carved wooden gun-lightly burnt to give it a nice charred patina. Even as a newbie in the public art administrative world, it wasn’t hard to predict this would raise a few eyebrows from airport management as well as those in the cultural affairs department. Without asking for any information on the artwork or probably even reading an artist statement, the demand was relayed to Peter to remove the firearm element immediately. Zubiate, being the thoughtful craftsman that he was, quickly obliged but replaced it with another wooden object. If you look closely in the image attached you can see a carved, charred wooden bible. The artist was contacted to remove the entire installation swiftly after this bold move. It is debatable if the gun imagery was offensive in San Antonio, Texas, but this response to censorship has always struck me as legendary.
Another notable brush with controversy I encountered was within the Houston Airport System sometime in 2016. Robert Pruitt’s “Oba” was installed at Bush Intercontinental Airport. It took about six months for someone to find an issue with this awesome work on paper, and the complainant did not come from the public. An employee high on the totem pole contacted me to meet them in front of the artwork where they pointed out their concern; hanging around the neck of the figure in the work was a small, hand drawn bullet. This was worth calling me from my office to talk about right in front of the artwork apparently. My reply was simply “so a black man wearing what appears to be a bullet worries you?”. Pruitt’s work still hangs proudly in that Houston airport.
Art education is extremely important. Not only can it make you appreciate and evaluate our visual culture, but it could actually save time. I can’t tell you how much time has been wasted because somebody pretends to be overly cautious just because they don’t understand something that hangs in a public space. Because I am still a relatively new employee here, I will refrain from going into full detail around one part of “Cathedral“, by Jacqueline Metz and Nancy Chew. Communication is also a great way to resolve a concern, knee-jerk reactions happen and can sometimes result in an artwork being removed. Luckily my colleagues here at Sea-Tac are quite art friendly, and the red “danger” tape was removed for the public to freely enjoy the work. Public Art should be on view for everyone, and everyone simply does not have the same tastes. Those in the public as well as those in power should have a basic understanding of the process, and strive to understand the artwork as well. Simply not liking a work does not mean it needs to come off the wall. There are people who travel through the airports who may not like seafood, but we don’t kick out seafood restaurants. Some cultural affairs managers and other decision-makers would like to have artwork that never raises a pulse; design enhancements that the public can ignore. Let me tell you, if you’re looking for controversy you’ll find it anywhere so we might as well start with commissioning real art.
I often think of my mentor Luis Jimenez, who made work that was perceived as controversial. Jimenez’ work graces the steps of the Smithsonian, parks and universities, and McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. Friends and colleagues who work at that particular airport have told me the only issues are making sure “Vaquero” is nice and clean for the public. Sometimes the works that are the most controversial in the beginning end up becoming the most beloved.