Is It Art?
Dressing up the Stadium bridges
by Jan Schlain
On June 7, in public sessions at City Hall, four artists from around the country presented their plans for the new Stadium Boulevard bridges. As a member of the task force reviewing the designs, David Huntoon was there.
"Somebody asked about the art in Grant Park, in Chicago, just north of the art museum," recalls Huntoon, a business location consultant. "One person said, 'It would be really nice to have something like that here.'"
The new group of sculptures in Grant Park is impressive--but as artist Volkan Alkanoglu quickly pointed out, the comparison was also utterly unrealistic. "Volkan said, 'Yeah, well that was a $20 million project,'" Huntoon recalls. Ann Arbor's entire budget for the bridge art is just $360,000.
"It would be a wonderful thing," summarizes Huntoon, "but that's not going to happen."
Alkanoglu's "Lady Ann" wasn't going to happen, either. The spiky sculpture finished last in the task force's surveys--and even if it hadn't, task force member Nancy Leff was not going to vote for it. "We went online and found it was completely a 95 percent rehash of a project that this artist had already done," explains Leff, a U-M researcher who represents the nearby neighborhood on the task force.
"People think all these proposals came in," Bob Miller says. "It's not that way."
A Realtor and builder, Miller was recruited to work on last year's unsuccessful public art millage campaign. He wound up as head of the city's art commission, and from there on the bridges task force. In mid July, the group unanimously recommended Yale grad Catherine Widgery's design, which includes bluestone panels underneath the bridge, a transparent, seventy-two-foot-long windscreen along the bridge itself, and lamppost banners, all etched with images of trees. The task force recommendation will now go to the art commission, which will make a recommendation to city council.
As Miller explains, though, this wasn't the wide-open competition casual observers imagined. It was the last phase of a $23 million construction project, and
that's how it was run--the "statement of qualifications" issued last October called for artists to submit "bids" to the city's procurement unit.
Thirty-two artists responded. "I think ten submissions from Michigan and about four from Ann Arbor," says Miller. One photographer proposed a large mural. A former Ann Arbor resident who now lives in Texas had "these giant steel stick figures that were really fascinating. That kind of made it up the ladder," says Miller. But in the end, he, too, was cut.
Just having a neat idea wasn't enough, explains art commission member John Kotarski--the task force was looking for artists with experience working on major construction projects. "If they didn't connect the dots for us [between smaller portfolio pieces and large-scale public art], we couldn't figure it out." Artists also were dropped if "the work they did--mural or skyscraper--did not seem to fit the bill."
Based on their resumes and past work, the final four were selected before they'd even set foot in Ann Arbor.
In February, the city sent each of the finalists--Widgery, Alkanoglu, Sheila Klein, and Matt Passmore--a check for $3,000 to cover the cost of their proposal and two trips to Ann Arbor. They first saw the bridge on a cold day in April.
"I piled them all in a van; I gave them the nickel tour," says Miller from his front porch off Liberty Street. "I drove them east to west, north to south.
"I showed them the art in Ann Arbor, the small collection we have. I showed them the downtown. I showed them the university. I showed them examples of neighborhoods." And Miller and engineer Mike Nearing showed them their worksite: the paired bridges that carry Stadium over State Street and the Ann Arbor Railroad. "They walked under it, over it," Miller recalls. "I remember a lot of people saying how cold it was."
The task force also solicited ideas from the public--but didn't get much of a response. "It was a huge disappointment to me that there were so few people who actually attended the artists' meet-and-greet at the [Burns Park] senior center," Leff says. "We have a Google email neighborhood group, close to 400 email names, and I would send this out to everyone, and I think maybe a couple of people from my neighborhood came. And we're at ground zero!"
That changed in June. When the four artists returned to present their concepts, the online comment boards lit up. "It's just like everything on annarbor.com," says Leff. "Ninety-five percent of the comments were negative. And the people who are either neutral or have something positive to say don't respond."
But even art commissioner John Kotarski wasn't impressed with all of the proposals. "Some of these artists could have spent a little more time," he says. "I'm underwhelmed."
The group did manage to get some useful feedback through online surveys and one-on-one meetings. When Bob Miller set up a booth at the Green Fair in June to show off the designs and explain the process, says Leff, "85 percent of [the people who stopped] were positive about at least two out of the four. Their whole perspective on the project changed."
When all the surveys were complete, city public art administrator Aaron Seagraves tallied the votes. "Adding all the sources of feedback," he emails, "the 4th choice was Mr. Volkan Alkanoglu's proposal by a handful--though it was more like one [clear winner] with a three-way tie for second place."
Widgery won the popular vote--and also impressed the task force. "Look at the etchings within her work," says Eli Cooper, the city transportation planner. "What she described as she presented her materials was that these were actually images of trees in Ann Arbor, that she had photographed trees in the [Nichols] Arboretum and in other areas in the city."
"I loved her presentation, and I loved the models," says Wiltrud Simbuerger, who recently completed a U-M PhD in architecture. "When I think of that site, it's not a site where I think in terms of trees. It's a lot of car traffic, cement, and asphalt."
Now, it will also have a grove of ghostly trees. While some people passing over or under the bridge will surely appreciate that as art, others just as surely won't.
"No matter what choice is made, there are always going to be people who don't like it," Nearing says matter-of-factly, "and they are going to be vocal and passionate about how much they don't like it."
The 1 Percent Problem
Ann Arbor came late to the "1 percent for art" movement. "It started in Philadelphia [in 1959] and spread all over the country," explains art commissioner John Kotarski. "We got into it about 2007-2008."
The program set aside 1 percent of all capital improvement spending for related art. But "what we found was that about 60 percent of the money that comes in from the process comes in through sewer money and water money--that's buried," says Kotarski. It also led to tagging on art at the end of a project, instead of incorporating it into the design.
City Council suspended the 1 percent program in June. But even after the bridge and a couple of smaller projects, the fund will be left with a balance of about $800,000. Some of that money may continue to fund public art administrator Aaron Seagraves' job; council hasn't yet decided how to spend the rest.
[Originally published in August, 2013.]