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Public Art – Team Sport or Invividual Accomplishment?

by Gail Sachson 16 Jul 2010 3:19 PM

At the recent Aspen Institute Ideas Festival, a question was asked: Who should get credit for public art. Guest blogger Gail Sachson was there and ponders the question.


Photo: Dan Bayer

Guest blogger Gail Sachson owns Ask Me About Art, offering lectures, tours, program planning and consultation. She is Vice-Chair of the Cultural Affairs Commission and a member of the Public Art Committee.

After years of admittedly not acknowledging the importance or relevancy of the arts as a topic of discussion on a par with world politics, the  renowned Aspen Institute Ideas Festival offered a separate track for arts and culture last week.

Arts issues shared the stage with other important focuses, such as world affairs, living digitally, race in America, the future of medicine and Latin American studies.

Leaders and experts in the arts – such as NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, playwright John Guare and movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg – joined politicians and leaders such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Gates and Attorney General Eric Holder. The luminaries entertained, educated and often provoked the audience of  hundreds of educators, philanthropists, activists and vacationers eager to combine outdoor physical adventures with indoor cerebral activities.

I have attended the festival for several years now, and I have found that many of the ideas I take home come from the conversation among the attendees after the panel discussions and tutorials. This year was no different. During the question and answer segment of  “Public Sculpture & Private Creativity,” an audience member asked: If public art is a “team sport,” as described by presenting artist Janet Echelman, then why was just the artist credited with the work? Why not also credit the engineer, the lighting designer, the computer expert and all the other necessary co-workers ? Public art is an “ensemble piece,” the audience members said, and should be credited as such.

Echelman, who creates glorious outdoor organic sculptures moved by the wind, demurred and suggested it was she, the creator, who must take ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the work, thus her name is the one on the work.

I am not so much interested in the ethics of the naming, but of the psychology of it – for the purposes of marketing appeal. Public sculpture  is too often an easy target for criticism, negativity and even hostility. I suggest that, if more public art acknowledged the team work and credited that team with a corporate-like name, such as Eyecon in Dallas, or as architectural firms do, rather than stress the individual artist,the wider community would be less likely to respond with derision, which is usually aimed personally at that one artist. The effort, research, areas of expertise, creativity and necessary compromise would be better acknowledged and applauded. Public art is truly a team sport. The city is its arena, and we should be its fans.