Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2014

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Public art comes to life

The downtown "Poets Bridge" in the Lewis Avenue Corridor crosses a river of dry pebbles and Yucca plants.

It's a minimalist bridge, a concrete slab covered with a collection of poetic phrases.

There are Bruce Isaacson's words, "To live is the greatest poem / We ache with the weight of it. We die of the lack of it," and Aliki Barnstone's "Who in her right mind talks to the moon? I do."

From poet Gregory Crosby we read, "Because self indulgence is the highest achievement of western civilization / Because 'star-crossed' sounds better than "stardust."

On any weekday, buses rattle past. Lawyers climb steps. If you stop on the bridge, read the words, contemplate them, hate them, love them, agree or disagree with the project and its meaning, then this piece of public art is a success.

The same can be said for artist Steven Liguori's "Breaking Ground," a 14-foot stainless steel sculpture at the gateway to the John S. Park neighborhood, representing Mary Dutton and how she farmed the land in the area during the 1920s.

In Boulder City, a small sculpture park speaks to visitors with its array of works by local artists. The Las Vegas Valley also is home to the deco-style "Winged Figures of the Republic" at Hoover Dam, the Claes Oldenburg flashlight sculpture at UNLV and Rita Deanin Abbey's steel work, "Spirit Tower" at the entrance to the Summerlin Library.

This summer a 25-foot tall Louis Longi bronze sculpture in front of the Nevada Cancer Institute was erected.

With a proposed downtown sculpture garden, the 14-mile Flamingo / Arroyo Trail and Las Vegas' percent-for-art program (which guarantees that 1 percent of funds for construction of a city building will go for art), Las Vegas is moving toward artistic sophistication.

But public sculpture can be a lightning rod. If the public isn't angry about how it's funded, often with tax dollars, it's angry about the piece itself.

Richard Serra's steel "Tilted Arc," a curving-wall sculpture in Federal Plaza in New York City, so enraged citizens who lunched in the plaza that it was removed.

At the veterans memorial in Washington, D.C., Maya Lin's minimalist sculpture was accompanied by Frederick Hart's "Three Soldiers" to appease veterans who were initially angered by Lin's work.

In Las Vegas, battles have been much smaller. Oldenburg's flashlight at Ham Hall on the UNLV campus initially ruffled feathers, as did landscape pieces installed recently near the Spaghetti Bowl, even though the pieces are technically classified as landscaping, not public sculpture.

"Public art is dicey," said Nancy Deanor, cultural affairs manager for Las Vegas. "Art is subjective, and tax dollars are also subjective. People can understand when taxes are used for safety, but veer off that path and it gets confusing.

"Spending tax dollars on art is something (some) people don't feel is necessary."

Still, freeway reliefs are turning up along roadways, and the Las Vegas Arts Commission says it's on its way to designing a Web site that highlights public sculptures and projects the commission has overseen.

The commission also funds a course at UNLV that brings together art and architecture students to work with engineers on public art projects.

Mayor Oscar Goodman, who initiated the percent-for-arts ordinance, has been a strong voice for public sculpture in Las Vegas.

"It's just as important as having a major league baseball team or an academic medical center," Goodman said. "It creates a sense of sophistication in the community."

Public projects

Other cities and states have had their percent-for-arts programs for as long as a couple of decades. In some cities, the program extends to private development as well.

Phoenix is spending $10.6 million this year on public sculpture and is in the middle of 64 projects. The city is often used as a model for other cities interested in reaching the public with art.

But Phoenix has considerable vocal opposition to its public sculpture projects, especially the oversized pots on Piestewa Parkway, said Phil Jones, executive director of the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture.

"You mention the pots and talk radio goes crazy," Jones said. "Every once in a while TV channels look at our records and say, 'Oh my god, they're spending thousands of dollars on it.' "

Basically, Jones said, "There is always someone out there who feels spending money on any type of art is a waste of taxpayer money."

But, he added, "If the community was all left to private developers, cookie buildings and McDonald's, it would be ugly. What the art does is add another dimension."

Las Vegan Bob Bellis sees both sides of the argument. The lifelong resident of Nevada and president of the John S. Park Neighborhood Association is an art enthusiast who also runs the Safe Place Program for Nevada Youth Alliance.

"I'm a realist in saying that there are a lot of different issues," Bellis said. "I'd be supportive of (percent for arts). But on the other hand people are going to say, 'Hey, there's other things you can invest that in. I work for Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.' You can say, 'Why don't you invest that money in homeless youth?'

"When Nevada is 51st behind Puerto Rico in social services, you can't really justify spending money on a piece of artwork."

On the other hand, Bellis said, "Art is important to a community. It makes people care about the community. That's why (Las Vegas) is so transient. There are things that are missing."

Needs and art

Las Vegas Councilman Larry Brown of Ward 4 voted against the percent-for-arts ordinance. Brown has not returned phone calls for this story.

But artist Suzanne Hackett-Morgan sees public sculpture as a valuable investment in community.

"When people bother to celebrate art in public places, they are saying something about themselves that is positive," Hackett-Morgan said. " 'Hey, we like being alive.' They're kind of engaged in where they live.

"It says something about a community. It's making the invisible, visible: the internal heart of the city."

In the mid-1990s, Hackett-Morgan inventoried outdoor sculpture in Southern Nevada for Save Outdoor Sculpture!, a national preservation project headed by Heritage Preservation and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her efforts listed more than 80 Southern Nevada sculptures.

Neither the city nor the county has a list detailing all of the sculptures in Southern Nevada, but Clark County Cultural Supervisor Patrick Gaffey said that when he was with the Allied Arts Council and the Las Vegas Arts Commission, there were plans to create a driving tour of Southern Nevada public art.

Although the tour was never completed, Gaffey said, "We figured at that time we had 100 pieces of public art, mostly sculptures. We didn't include the clowns in front of Circus Circus or 'No Ifs and Butts.' "

Deaner said that one of the goals of the Las Vegas Arts Commission is to produce a pamphlet that lists the sculptures. Also, there is an artists registry available for private developers to look at. But rarely, Deaner said, is it tapped into.

Some projects require more experienced artists, which leads developers to look outside of Las Vegas -- a common complaint among local artists.

But, Deaner said, "What we found as we were doing more and more projects was we wanted to include local artists, but they didn't know how to go about it. It goes beyond their craft. When you do public art you need to know public art issues. How to interact, how to get the neighborhood on board. There's all those issues. How do you work with cities, liability? How do you work with a team?

"Ideally, the best way to go with public art is to incorporate art and architecture so their work isn't an add-on at the end of the process. For many years people said, 'You can just put a horse and rider out there at the very end.'

Pasha Rafat, a UNLV art professor and instructor for Art in Public Places, agrees.

"I don't want to put a sculpture in front of a building. That's very insulting," Rafat said. "It's rude. We try to look at the nature of the collaborative process. It just hasn't really happened on the ground level with this community."

Also, Rafat said, "The problem we have with the idea of art, the minute you mention it, it becomes kind of confusing. You mention art, and it references a painting that goes over a couch in the living room.

"Lots of times people run opinions without really seeing the pieces."

Gaffey, who oversaw Zap!, the Las Vegas Centennial project that had invited local artists to paint artwork onto utility boxes in the Winchester Neighborhood, said that when it comes to public art, "There's a surprising amount of hostility" and that abstract art might add to the disdain for public sculpture.

"A lot of people feel that with abstract art they are being hoodwinked," Gaffey said. "Most people look at a piece of abstract art and can't tell if that person has any skill or not."

With realist sculpture, they see the technical skill and say, "I could never do that."

Liguori said he prefers abstract art, but will create realist work, such as his "High Scaler" monument on a boulder at Hoover Dam.

Mostly, Liguori said, "I like art to be something you're questioning. With realism, there's only so much you can do with it because people have seen those images, those shapes, those curves. With abstract art, it's more of a hurdle.

"When art is new, people don't know how to take it. They have to have some time to go through the information. It makes them think about it. So whether they like it or don't, they related to it. It got their attention from TV and daily life."

Jack Solomon, owner of S2 Art and the initiator of the downtown sculpture garden, "a forest" of 36 18-foot-high pillars of colors that change as you walk past, estimates that the garden, which will be open within two years, will be a destination in itself.

Gaffey sees the percent-for-art ordinance as the initial spark that could lead to a major change in Las Vegas' perception of the arts.

"There was a time when every form of art was a lot closer to people in general," Gaffey said. "Classical music moved away from the people. Poetry -- that's so far away that most poets are saying they're writing poetry for small groups of professors and poets. That's not good. That's not good at all. I think public art can be helpful in this situation.

"People talk about the days of Medici. My response is that we have more money in this town and people who have more money than the Medici could have ever dreamed of."

Kristen Peterson is an Accent feature writer. Reach her at 259-2317 or kristen @lasvegassun.com.

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