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5 May 2005
Published in the Columbia Tribune 13 June 2005

Columbia's Stonehenge

Mike Sleadd is annoyed.  I don't blame him.

The professor of art at Columbia College has heard a lot of the complaints about the Stephens Lake public art piece selected under the Cityís "Percent for Art" program.  How it costs too much money.  How it was selected without public involvement.  How it looks like "Stonehenge."  How it is being done by a "New York artist."

It's bunk, he says.  I tend to agree.

Sleadd was on the selection committee that chose artist Carol Fleming to create the piece for Stephens Lake.  (Fleming, by the way, is from St. Louis, not New York.)  Also on the committee were two members of the Cultural Affairs Commission, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, another citizen with art expertise, a member of the business community, a representative from the community around the park, the lead landscape architect from Parks and Recreation who helped design Stephens Lake, and a representative of the Parks and Recreation Commission.  All were duly appointed by the City Council in accordance with City law and policy.

Likewise, the selection process was done according to long-established City procedures, with every meeting advertised and open to the public, in compliance with the Sunshine Law.  Marie Nau Hunter, Manager of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said:  "Not counting the City Council meetings when the public hearing was set and then held, I count that there were seven meetings that dealt with the Stephens project, either of the Standing Committee on Public Art or the Commission on Cultural Affairs.  Additionally, before the City Council reviews the final recommendations, we advertise and hold a public hearing at the Council meeting before a decision is made."

So, if you didn't attend any of the meetings, or offer your comments, you can still be unhappy with the final selection.  But you should put at least part of the blame on yourself.  And you can't claim that the decision was made without the opportunity for public input.

That isn't to say that the selection process is ideal.  Reviewing slides submitted by artists for any competition is grueling and reflects as much on the skill of the photographer as the vision of the artist.  But it is the standard procedure for everything from choosing art fair participants to students for graduate programs.  More discussion, more entries to choose from, maybe more feedback from the public all might be beneficial.  But all of that would require more time, and many of the people involved in the process are volunteers.  Increasing their workload isn't necessarily the best solution, either.

How about the cost?  Well, the "Percent for Art" program is based on overall project costs including costs for architects and engineers but not land cost.  Some of the allocated money is set aside for maintenance, printing and promotion, et cetera.  Administrative costs are paid out of the OCA budget.  In this case the artist's commission is $18,500.  That's a nice piece of change, but it is all-inclusive, meaning that all the materials, site prep, fabrication, installation, and so forth come out of that.  For a dozen pieces ranging in size up to about 12 feet, that means the artist probably isn't making a lot of money.  This is commonly the case with large public works of art, since artists will often tend to underbid their work in order to win a big commission that they hope will promote their career.

As for the piece being dubbed "Stonehenge" by local critics, that hardly seems to be apt or accurate to anyone who has actually seen what "Stonehenge" looks like.  The 12 pieces of 'Look Out Point' are to spiral up a hill, growing in size.  None of them will be resting on top of others.  You can call them Dolmens, such as are found singly or in arranged groups throughout northern Europe, but they're certainly not "Stonehenge."  In fact, Dolmens, or "standing stones" as they are frequently called, nicely echo with the columns left on either end of Eighth Street downtown.

I can't say that I was particularly pleased to hear that the members of the selection committee decided to open the call for entries to any Missouri artist, since I want to see us support our local artists.  And I wish we could get away from needing to buy one large "signature" piece rather than spreading the money around to a lot of artists.  But those are discussions for another day.

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