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Hartford Should Fund Public Art: It Gives The City Style


October 28, 2007

I am privileged, nearly each day, to see one of the great works of art in the city, an outdoor metalwork sculpture titled "Pickles and Palm Trees" by the late and great Hartford sculptor Elbert Weinberg.

The piece is down the street from my office, in the small park at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Broad Street that borders both the State Armory and the Legislative Office Building.

Weinberg, an internationally known artist (1928-1991), crafted a beautiful abstract piece - tall silver poles with leaves shaped like palm fronds or pickles - that recalls the island origins of many of the residents of the nearby Frog Hollow neighborhood.

It also suggests a circle of life-forms, so may subtly refer to the gatherings held in the Legislative Office Building. Thus does it connect with its surroundings and make those surroundings more attractive and interesting. It has never, to my knowledge, been marred with graffiti.

Wouldn't you want such things in your city?

Hartford city council member Dr. Bob Painter does. For the past two years, Painter has been trying to get an ordinance through the council that would commit the city to spending at least $50,000 a year in matching funds for public art, with the help of an advisory board.

It appeared that the ordinance would pass earlier this month, but then the city's corporation counsel said it would be illegal for one council to bind another to a certain budget line item. Painter is recasting the ordinance to allow future councils to vote on the $50,000 or more allocation.

Also, some council members questioned the importance of investing in public art, noting that the money could be used to hire two more police officers, among other possible uses.

Well, sure. If a tiny percentage of the city's $500 million budget cannot be spared, so be it. But the city has been able to come up with some funds, $15,000 to $50,000 in recent years, for public art, and it should. This is part of the infrastructure - the best part, one might argue - and something government should have a hand in.

Outdoor art is a major part of what gives a city its unique sense of place. From the spectacular - the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower - to the sublime, such as the "Make Way for Ducklings" statue in Boston's Public Garden, outdoor sculpture and monuments are integral to the way we think about a city.

Outdoor sculpture is also an essential guide to a city's history. The oldest public art in Hartford can be found in the Ancient Burying Ground, and tells much of how the early settlers looked at religion and death.

Statues of Lafayette and other military figures, the glorious Solders and Sailors Memorial Arch and the Spanish-American War Memorial in Bushnell Park tell us how we thought of war and remembrance. We see how styles change over the years. We see who the city thought to honor. How many cities have statues of Horace Wells, founder of anesthesiology?

As with "Pickles and Palm Trees," outdoor public art can define a site. The northwest side of Bushnell Park is focused on the exquisite Corning Fountain, to take an easy example.

Also, guys, public art is FUN. It has provided some of the real rip-roaring fights in Hartford over the last many years. We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of Carl Andre's "Stone Field Sculpture," the composition of boulders at Main and Gold streets. People marched and protested that city funds were used for this unworthy project (I love it). But it's now a part of downtown Hartford. Calder's "Stegosaurus" on Burr Mall between city hall and the Wadsworth Atheneum also had its critics.

The Parisky Group just completed an inventory of the city's outdoor sculpture for the Greater Hartford Arts Council. The survey includes 65 pieces, ranging from Colt Monument in Colt Park to modern works such as the wonderfully whimsical "Pull Toy" at the Learning Corridor. "The variety of styles and materials is amazing. It is a great heritage," said Ken Kahn, the council's executive director.

Much of the city's outdoor art portfolio was privately donated or built with public/private partnerships. For example, "Pickles" was part of a program begun in 1980s called "Art For All" that came from the fecund imagination of Lary Bloom, editor of the Courant's late and lamented Northeast Magazine.

Since 2001, the arts council has picked up the ball and, with corporate and foundation assistance, installed or commissioned more than two dozen pieces of outdoor sculpture in Bushnell Park, The Riverfront (the Lincoln Financial Sculpture Walk along the river will have 16 pieces when completed) and the Learning Corridor, among other sites.

Kahn would like to keep going with at least one new work per year. This might include memorial sculptures of prominent citizens such as Jackie McLean or Maria Sanchez, sculptures for specific sites, and perhaps an example of neon or laser lighting art. The council recently installed a bronze bust of Hartford native Frederick Law Olmsted at the Institute of Living, whose grounds the Father of Landscape Architecture designed.

The city's contribution wouldn't pay for all of this, nor even half of it, but it would help. And if the art enhances the sense of place, speaks to its history and makes the city more beautiful, then perhaps we won't need two more cops.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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