Friday, March 31, 2017

Who Owns the Universe?

The other rite of spring: earlier this month, Preservation Chicago released its annual list of the seven most endangered buildings in Chicago. According to Ward Miller, the executive director of the advocacy group, the list is released every year in early March, to coincide with the anniversary the founding of the city, which in Ward's words: " a significant time because these buildings tie to the city’s history."

One of the seven items on this year's list is not a building at all, but Chicago's 20th century public sculpture. All of it, with the exception of the iconic Picasso Sculpture in Daley Plaza, surprisingly is not protected by landmark status. I say surprisingly because one of the bullet points civic boosters (including Miller) like to use in defense of their argument that Chicago is a "world class city" is indeed this city's vast treasure trove of public sculpture.

As the entry on public sculpture on Preservation Chicago's list of threatened works points out, we have already lost a good number of significant works of public art including a Henry Moore sculpture that once stood in the lobby of Three First National Bank Plaza. That sculpture was sold at auction last year, presumably being removed forever from public view. Some notable works have been compromised such as the Harry Bertoia kinetic sculpture in AON Plaza, which was broken up and reassembled in greatly diminished form when the plaza was reconfigured in 1994. Other important works are in desperate shape, most notably Marc Chagall's mosaic sculpture, The Four Seasons, which has been severely damaged by the natural elements it represents.

Since the list was released, in barely the blink of an eye, one of the pieces mentioned, Universe, by Alexander Calder, which has stood in the lobby of the former Sears Tower for over forty years. began to be dismantled, and is now headed toward an unknown future.

Universe, by Alexander Calder, which at this writing,
is being removed from the lobby of Willis (formerly Sears) Tower.
This photograph was made in 2009, shortly after the name change of the building.

This whimsical mechanized mobile, consists of geometric shapes representing the sun, the moon and the stars, as well as organic elements from terra firma. Each piece is meant to be in constant motion with the elements moving independently, meaning that theoretically, the objects are never in exactly the same relationship to each other, just as the objects in the universe, (get it?). Unfortunately, quite often the motors used to animate the piece weren't turned on consistently so the entire point of the sculpture was lost on the tens of thousands of visitors who passed by it every day. 

The Calder sculpture was considered by many to be the one saving grace of the lobby of the behemoth building in the west Loop, which despite several attempts at re-design, remains desperately cold and uninspiring. The latest attempt to make Sears/Willis Tower meet the ground in a kinder, gentler manner, (as well as providing extra retail and other revenue-generating space), was announced to the public earlier this year. The design presented by the building's new owner, The Blackstone Group, an investment firm based in New York City, will feature an entirely separate structure that will wrap around the first four stories of the tower, doing away with the current wind-swept plaza whose level base gracelessly encounters the street grade as it rises to the level of the bridges crossing the Chicago River one block west. This is how the entrance to Sears Tower looks today:

The Wacker Drive entrance to Sears/Willis Tower as it looks today from Adams Street.
The barrier wall, part of the original 1974 design, the awkward barrel-vaulted entrance, stuck on in 1985,
and the globe which appeared in 2010, will soon be be counted, along with Alexander Calder's Universe,
among the artifacts of Lost Chicago.
A rendering of the new entrance can be found here in Blair Kamin's Chicago Tribune piece on the new structure.. Careful observers at the public announcement of the new design were quick to notice that nowhere in the new plan did there seem to be any provision for the Calder. Mayor Rahm Emanuel who attended the presentation, remained mum when asked about plans for the sculpture. Ironically, Emanuel proclaimed 2017, the "Year of Public Art" in Chicago.

At this point it may be useful to ask this question: what exactly is public art? Obvious examples are the aforementioned Daley Center Picasso, and Chicago's other Calder, The Flamingo, which not coincidentally was unveiled on the same day in 1974 as Universe.  Both The Flamingo and the Picasso are owned by the public, and they sit atop public space on public land.

Here are Preservation Chicago's recommendations for Chicago's public art:

Preservation Chicago believes that these works of art should be protected and always on public display. Additionally, these works of art are contextual and were designed to be viewed in situ, so to the extent possible, should remain in their original environment. The loss of any of these art pieces is tragic, and we suggest that these public and private works of art, with public access, and on open plazas and semi-public spaces, be considered for thematic Chicago Landmark Designation along with their plazas and open spaces, to guarantee that they will always be here for the public good. 

Fair enough. It gets tricky however when you deal with a privately owned work of art that sits on or inside private property, but is still accessible to the general public, which is the case with Calder's Universe. Should a work of art be like a building owned by a private entity, whose owners have the right (assuming landmark protections do not apply), to do whatever they please with it? 

The answer to that question is not as cut and dried as you might expect. Most folks I assume would believe that, as a matter of principle, the owner of a work of art has every right to display it or not. Heck, even the Art Institute took down the much beloved stained glass windows of Marc Chagall for a number of years (because the director at the time didn't like them), much to the consternation of many of the museum's patrons. When they finally returned on display, the windows ended up stuck in a remote corner of the museum rather their former place of prominence, thereby losing much of their context.

So what about a privately owned site-specific work of art such as Universe? Preservation Chicago argues about the importance of the context of specific works of art, but what happens to the art when the owner of a building decides to modify the space where the art resides? From the renderings of the new entrance to Sears/Willis Tower, it appears that the new space does not even provide the ample clearance necessary to display the piece let alone the original context for which the piece was intended.

Logic would seem to rule in favor of the owners who would face an unreasonable burden to insure that they would need to work around the requirements of existing works of art, whenever they perform what they deem to be necessary alterations to their buildings.

On the other hand, in the seventies and eighties, it was common practice for the city to offer zoning and tax breaks, as well as other perks to encourage developers to create open spaces populated with works of art. Given that, it would seem that the owners of these buildings would have some sort of obligation to the public to maintain those works of art.

Now suppose the original owners, the beneficiaries of those perks. are long gone. Are owners a few generations removed, obligated to maintain their art, and its context, into perpetuity?

Another case brought up by the Preservation Chicago piece is the Jean Dubuffet sculpture called "Monument with Standing Beast", outside of the James R, Thompson Center in the Loop. Like the Picasso and The Flamingo, the Dubuffet sculpture is publicly owned and sits on public land. Unfortunately the government is considering selling the building and the property upon which it stands. Would the new owners be obligated to preserve this piece in situ? Logic would tell us probably not. If the Thompson Center is demolished, (a distinct and unfortunate possibility), that sculpture would have lost its context anyway.

Even Calder's Flamingo is considered endangered, as the Federal Government who operates the plaza where the sculpture resides, is considering consolidating all of their operations into one of the three buildings on the site and selling off the plaza to private concerns. Arguably no piece of public art in Chicago is more tightly connected to its context than the bright red organic curves of that Calder work which perfectly compliments the rigid black and white geometry of the Mies van der Rohe Federal Center. Its loss would be a devastating blow to the city.

So where does that leave us?

Clearly there is a conflict between the "public good" and private property rights. Even our strapped-for-cash government seems to be unmoved by the question of public art. I'm sorry but I don't have a clear answer to this complicated matter.

Even if we wanted to, we probably can't pass a law to insure that all of our works of public art, whether they be publicly or privately owned, be maintained and preserved in the context in which they were intended.

Short of that, it would seem that the best solution is to provide every incentive to the owners of Chicago's tremendous collection of public art, including the government at all levels, to look at the big picture. If Chicago is to be a world class city (whatever that means), then it must lead the way culturally as well as economically.

It seems that when we led the nation in encouraging the creation of public art in our city forty years ago, we got it, but somewhere between then and now, we lost our way.

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