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The politics of public art is never easy. Elected officials are charged with responsibly allocating the percentage of capital improvement projects dedicated to public art, while few, if any, have any curatorial expertise. Adding to that contradiction, some politicians are blind to the value of such investment, while others are oblivious to their lack of expertise.
That’s why, ideally, there is a process put in place to substitute transparency for cronyism, and limit the influence of politics on the selection of artists and the trust invested in their work.
Still, politics inevitably intrude, introducing more heat than light. Such was the case at last week’s meeting of the Bexar County Commissioners Courts and its consideration of the Creek Lines proposal by San Antonio visual artists Stuart Allen and Cade Bradshaw of the Bridge Projects collaborative.
The artists proposed using 30 slender and undulating steel poles to symbolize the city’s most historic creek path. Each pole would be assigned a decade of the city’s 300-year history for the passerby to pause and consider. The minimalist, understated design is a refreshing counterpoint to the popular assumption that public art should be grand in scale and show-stopping in dramatic impact.
San Pedro Creek itself is a modest, meandering waterway, easily overwhelmed in the wrong hands.
Almost everything we publish on public art in San Antonio inevitably draws a comment from a reader yearning for work similar to British artist Anish Kapoor’s $27 million Cloud Gate in Millenium Park in Chicago. That work along the shores of a Great Lake is iconic, no doubt, but any effort to imitate it here will always fall short.
Along those lines, I disagree with Commissioner Tommy Calvert, who told the artists, “You put in a lot of good work. We want to support the artist economy … but I think there was vision for this to be visible from the highway.”
That’s a false measure.
We should not be designing public art to be experienced at 60 mph on an elevated expressway. Drivers need to pay attention to the vehicles around them, not their cellphone screens or public artwork rising in the distance. Creek Lines, appropriately, is designed to be encountered by the pedestrian at street level.
Its scale is right, and while renderings are no substitute for the finished work in place, I can imagine dancers from Ballet San Antonio performing an original work around the steel sculpture, humans and sculpture becoming one.
The commissioners, in my view, hold a gem in their hands, but each is influenced, understandably, by past failure, thus leading to distrust in a process and outcome that deserves their trust. As noted in a Tuesday article by reporter Jackie Wang, after the presentation and much conversation, commissioners ultimately delayed voting on the Plaza de Fundación’s new centerpiece that is intended to replace the scrapped Plethora sculpture that was canceled due to cost overruns.
The essence of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, an ambitious 2.2-mile linear park through the historic western reaches of downtown San Antonio, is renewed life for the creekway and its role in the story of the city’s origins. The project is the work of Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority, and the City of San Antonio. Crews are now working on the second segment of phase one of a four-phase project that starts at Interstate 35 and the flood tunnel inlet at Santa Rosa Street and will end at the confluence of the Alazán and Apache creeks at I-35 to the south.
To the credit of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Commissioner Paul Elizondo, in particular, who was born along San Pedro Creek and died in December, few cities would undertake such a challenging task of restoring a creekway through the concrete and complexity of a modern downtown.
The quality of the public art, like the visitor learning experience, the landscape architecture, and the pedestrian amenities, is critical to the outcome.
The first effort came in November 2016, when the County commissioned Barcelona-based artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada to produce Plethora, a $735,000, 60-foot tall aluminum mask of indistinguishable ethnic origin. It could have been Toltec or Inuit. Miscalculations led to the project ballooning to $1.5 million before commissioners smartly pulled the plug.
A new round of consideration was launched last year with an August deadline for interested artists. The San Antonio River Authority led a professional process with a reduced budget of $400,000 for a work that would reflect the cultural, historical, and environmental significance of San Pedro Creek.
Allen and Bradshaw’s submission was chosen, and what they delivered Tuesday is an artwork and education program grounded in all three elements. I would challenge those critical of their design to review the entire 47-page proposal. Unless you attended the meeting, there are many nuances media coverage did not capture in full detail.
Both artists are intimately associated with the creation and opening of Confluence Park on the Mission Reach in March 2018, an outdoor learning laboratory and green space that overnight became a Southside magnet attracting people from across the city as well as visitors. The park is the most important enhancement to the San Antonio River since completion of the $384.1 million San Antonio River Improvements Project in 2013.
Go this weekend if you have not yet visited the park. Spend some time exploring Watershed Wall, Bradshaw’s exquisite sculptural relief of the San Antonio River and its tributaries, designed with Allen. Go on a weekday when schoolchildren are visiting on field trips and watch them gather around the artwork to find their place on the river. The work is small in scale, yet larger than life in engaging those who find it.
Interestingly, both Confluence Park and Yanaguana Garden in Hemisfair were completed with minimal political distraction. The result? Two of the most visited outdoor destinations in the urban core.
Wander through Yanaguana Garden’s playground area to find Allen’s Reflect, a steel-ribboned canopy. It’s a shade structure artfully mimicking playground equipment reaching into the sky. Again, it’s a work designed to be experienced by children and adults alike who wander into the structure, not knowing what they will find until they arrive.
The Bexar County commissioners have the ideal local artist collaborative, one that has pledged to make the public art a learning experience, a physical work buttressed by an educational program that will activate the space in the hearts and minds of children, luring them away from their ever-present digital screens, back into urban nature and the realm of imagination.