Monday, October 25, 2010

Is Cincinnati's Public Art Only Temporary?

With the LA Times story of Rodia's Watts Towers, I've been thinking about the state of permanence of urban art. With the popularity of street art, particularly graffiti and temporary murals, and "impromptu" performances, where is the investment in permanent art in urban spaces? Millions of dollars have been dropped on private or commercial real estate in the past decade. Are many these buildings and homes, which stand empty or unfinished, our new public art investment or just junk?

Watts Towers is a monument to the arts of found objects or "junk art." As such, it is the focus of a conversation on preservation through reused items. As an architectural sculpture of found object in an urban space, Watts Towers straddles many worlds and genres. Ironically, lending itself to various conversations on art and preservation Watts Towers risked flattening out and finally destruction. When a work art resists categorization, it risks being ignored. Fortunately Watts Towers was designated a National Landmark in 1990 so is itself protected.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Cincinnati's MuralWorks program is a successful one that celebrates local communities and puts artists to work. It is a very popular program with mural unveilings occurring countless times in the year recognizing community and the arts. Unfortunately, the city has adopted it as a business plan to exploit. We are now in the middle of year two of street art programs. As Shepard Fairey's temporary murals and Paint the Street evolve into the city's most prominently choreographed eyesores, plans are being made for the next round of street art events. With the upcoming Keith Haring exhibit, I loathe to expect something with chalk to promote the streetcar. Whatever the plan, popularity rather than permanence is the likely focus.

Despite all of the city planning involving a streetcar and casinos requiring literal ground breaking resulting in permanent changes in the urban core, there is no hint of a commitment to the arts in these plans. As new buildings go up redefining the commercial landscape of the city, there seems to be no effort to make a sincere commitment to permanent outdoor sculpture in our city.

Of course an honest and successful public arts program in Cincinnati requires those currently in power cede their influence to those who can actually judge art. The current trend towards the temporary permit "safe" decisions requiring no knowledge of the arts. There are a number of local artists and art professionals who can be hired as part of a panel to commission public art for the city. A panel of art professionals rather than business professionals would insure the city's landscape with a sincere commitment to and knowledge of the arts and culture.

Rodia's Watts Towers is a powerful statement for street art made at a time when the arts was about preservation and permanence of culture. Not a temporary public display.


Cameron Knight said...


For the last three years since I started working in the city, I've been checking in on your blog periodically. And I usually appreciate your insight, although you do occasionally take aim at my employer. But I guess if you dish it, you have to be able to take it as well, lol.

I've yet to comment on your blog, but I thought that my former town of Hamilton really fits the theme of this post. Hamilton (on a much, much smaller scale than Cincinnati) has a strong and slightly peculiar appreciation of art. With it's "City of Sculpture" self-designation and Harry Wilk's Pyramid Hill, all of it's public art is very permanent.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on their approach and why a smaller town has decided to go in such a different direction. Is it just the conservative, small town mentality that prefers more traditional art? Or just the firm and well-funded vision of a single man that has propelled Hamilton down a different path.

And keep up the good work. As a fellow journalist, I love Cincinnati's blog scene as much as I love its art scene.

Me said...

Cameron, Thanks so much for commenting. Sorry you waited so long to do so. :)

Honestly, I thought lots about Pyramid Hill while writing this and have spent much of today considering this exact question.

I've taught art history at Miami Hamilton off and on since I moved to Cincinnati about 8 yrs ago. Hamilton seems to continue to impress me with its interest and devotion to the arts. I can't visit the Fitton Center enough!

I do agree Pyramid Hill influences how Hamilton defines art. I'm not so sure though it is a conservative small town thinking though. Cincinnati is pretty conservative.

As I suggested in this post as well as a number of previous ones, Cincinnati really doesn't support the arts as much as it supports the idea of the arts as a business commodity. Many of the people in Cincinnati who define art have little to no art background.

Of course I mean Artswave.

I really don't know much about Hamilton politics (as an adjunct faculty, I'll teach my class and leave), but it seems as though Hamilton recognizes artists and other art professionals as those with credentials worthy of part of the local conversation about art.

Cincinnati needs to do this.

You ask a very interesting question. I wonder what others think?

Cameron Knight said...


Thanks for the response. I guess it all comes down to politics and "monetization." What a great buzz word. I guess some sectors of Cincinnati are trying to monetize our arts culture.

This idea got me thinking of the original intent of the big arts projects in Cincinnati. When Music Hall and the CAM were established, was the potential business impact not considered.

In my mind, this monetizing of our art seems like a recent occurrence. Though I fear I may also have a naive and romantic view of the past in which rich, but worldly philanthropists funded art establishments because it was the right thing to do. They poured their hard earned money into a building huge amphitheaters because they loved the theater.

But are we sure that there weren't ulterior motives, even way back then? I'd love to hear a discussion of the motives for artistic philanthropy and "patronage" in the mid to late 1800s. Both from the perspective of the rich, arts-funding business owner to the up-and-coming city government.

If arts have ALWAYS been funded to bring in more money to cities and businesses, it would certain shift the context of the current conversation for me.