The agony and ecstasy of public art
By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer 10/10/2013
In the 60-acre retail complex that is The Collection at RiverPark, art is visible nearly everywhere you go. From colorful mosaics on the sidewalks and murals on building walls to inventive fountains near the theater and playground, 18 works by five artists have turned the shopping mecca into an open-air museum. In early October, yet another installation will be added to the mix.
“Charting a Course” is a collaboration between architect Tyson Cline and photographer Stephen Schafer, both from Ventura. Large metal rectangles connected at precise angles resemble a partially unfolded map measuring 10 feet high and 20 feet in length. Schafer describes their creation as a “kinetic mural. But it’s not moving — you are.” Set against a long, narrow walkway, a two-dimensional composition would not suffice, so the artists employed a creative use of perspective to design a sculpture that works with, rather than against, the unusual vantage points. From one side, a map of the Channel Islands and coastline is visible; from the other, the viewer sees the Anacapa Island arch.
Such imaginative problem-solving demonstrates some of the challenges artists confront when signing on to a public art project. Practical considerations — durable, graffiti-proof, resistant to the elements and possibly un-climbable (for safety and liability purposes) — become paramount. How and where something gets installed affects its design. Permanent works need a maintenance plan. And then there are budget and insurance requirements.
Ojai artist Susan Stinsmuehlen-Amend had a number of complications to work out with both her “Shopping List” mural and her “Coastal Conversion” fountain statue. Stinsmuehlen-Amend is known for her groundbreaking work in glass, but the Whole Foods wall where her mural was to be located was already prepared for tile. “I felt like it wasn’t going to be as strong a work because I do think in layers so much.” She scanned a watercolor version and sent it to a tile company, unsure how the process would take. “I was surprised how well it worked out, actually. I hadn’t done it before, so that was scary.”
A different set of concerns arose with her fountain, in which a bronze and copper “net” rises out of the water and unravels, with fish leaping out on one side and riparian vegetation coming out on the other. Large aqua balls, reminiscent of Japanese fishing floats, fill the bottom of the net. “Originally I had wanted to do those spheres out of glass, but my contractor said he wouldn’t do the job,” Stinsmuehlen-Amend recalls. “The installation would be just too scary, and the glass was going to weigh probably 60 pounds each.” Instead, they made the balls from tinted, cast and spun polyurethane. “Nothing about it was easy to fabricate,” the artist attests.
Economics play a role in even the most well-thought-out plans. Shea Properties, RiverPark’s developer, budgeted $1 million for art. The projects were large, exciting, a commissioned artist’s dream . . . until the recession hit in 2009. Construction slowed, artwork was put on hold and the artists were suddenly out of work. Stinsmuehlen-Amend’s fountain went into storage. Frank Bauer, responsible for the vibrant mosaics “Sunrise and Sunset” and “Aquarium,” was in the process of relocating to California from Milwaukee, and had to quickly scrap the move. There was very little communication from the developer over the next three years, leaving many artists to wonder if their carefully conceived designs (not to mention the investment in time and money) would ever come to fruition. Luckily, the ball started rolling again in 2012, but by that time artists were facing tight deadlines. “There was no missing a beat,” Stinsmuehlen-Amend recalls. “They just called and said ‘We want it in by October.’ I was teaching in Scotland, I had a residency somewhere, and I also had a big private commission. So 2012 was a killer.”
Throughout 2013, The Collection gained more traction, major stores like REI and Whole Foods opened, and the numerous art installations were revealed to the public. The Carnegie Museum, inspired by what The Collection brought to the community, organized an exhibit featuring the work of the artists commissioned. Many artists were already in the museum’s permanent collection, says Suzanne Bellah, the museum’s director and curator. “We really wanted the public to have a way to learn about the background and artistic endeavors of these artists.”
The Collection and the Carnegie exhibit put Oxnard’s public art scene squarely in the spotlight — but the picture wasn’t always flattering. Schafer and Cline both say that at the exhibit’s opening reception, one of the most discussed topics was the state of public art in Oxnard. “The city requirement is to include public art with major developments,” Schafer explains, “But that might just be a rock with a plaque.” As Oxnard’s development services director Matthew Winegar explains, however, finding money has been a major challenge. “There is much more demand than there are funds,” Winegar says. “Last year in 2012 the [cultural arts] grant program had $200,000 and 36 applications. This year we don’t have as much funding — it’s $150,000 — and I believe we’ve received over 50 applications. So we have more interest and unfortunately less funding.”
The cultural arts grants were first offered in 2012, as a way to foster local art. They’re funded by an in-lieu fee program, whereby developers pay the city a fee, determined by square footage, for community art initiatives. According to Winegar, 25 percent of the funding goes to individual artists, while the rest goes to programming, acquiring the rights to plays, etc. “There has been some thought of using the art fund for more conventional public art in downtown or in parks and so on,” Winegar says, “but I think at this point, given the amount of funding that’s available, we’ll continue to invest in community art programs.”
Whether these initiatives will usher in a Renaissance of public art in Oxnard remains a subject of debate. What’s not questioned, however, is the value that public art brings to a community. “It seems like art is becoming a critical component of spurring reinvestment, in downtowns especially,” Winegar says. “I think people see that art adds value.” The Collection has been a testament to that. “It’s a major art installation,” says Bellah. “It gives prominence to art in the region.”