Public Art Controversies Stir Passions

A Rocket, A 54 Chevy And Inverted Cones Make Public Debate Easier

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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I am always amazed at how high emotions can soar in this town over public art controversies. These are after all, essentially matters of individual taste and carry at most symbolic importance.

But three recent examples suggest that perhaps in the domain of public art appreciation, where my opinion is just as valuable as anyone else's, Albuquerque's masses feel their views might actually be able to have some influence on the final outcome. And that's not the case in most public policy areas.

For instance, the governor's suggestion for changing the process by which billions of dollars are allocated to state public works projects, something with much more of an impact on our lives than the placement or design of a statue, hasn't captured a fraction of the voters' attention that the Old Town Rocket brouhaha has.

And we are apparently willing to placidly take in stride the proposed expenditure of additional millions of scarce tax dollars for expansion at the brand-new metropolitan jail with scarcely a ripple of opposition, while bombarding the editorial pages with our opinions on massive coffee filter art proposed for a freeway interchange.

Most of the bigger debates are so complicated, so difficult to get our hands around, that we can only fume silently while leaving them to our elected reps. In compensation, we pump lots of pent-up energy into aesthetic firestorms.

By far the loudest cries of outrage have come from those concerned about the proposal to erect a pair of large inverted cones near the intersection of I-40 and Louisiana when that interchange is rebuilt next year.

Dozens of such public art commissions are overseen by the city each year, most draw nary a whisper of comment. But occasionally some group's taste is too grievously violated by a particular work to simply deal with it through the expedient of looking away. This only becomes a full-blown “public art controversy,” however, when the press (or better, talk radio) jumps into the fray.

A poll taken by the Albuquerque Tribune on its website actually showed that the majority of those voting liked the proposed cones. But by then it was too late. Politicians had become involved and the rhetoric heated up. City Councilor Sally Mayer weighed in. Mayor Chavez promised an executive veto. And suddenly the selection of a work of art had become a bona fide battleground, albeit one artificially pumped-up and manipulated for its simplicity and polarizing qualities.

I remember similar passionate oratory spilled over the so-called “Chevy on a Stick” two decades ago. The public art mavens of that generation held firm in the face of philistine outrage and the commissioned piece was ultimately installed, a rather nice '54 Bel Air sedan done up in pretty blue tiles and stranded a good twenty feet up in the air.

In time the passions cooled and we all adjusted to life with the Blue Chevy. It still draws mention in guidebooks as one of the City's favorite (or most hated) works of art, a refreshing change from what must seem to visitors here like an otherwise total community fascination with bronze children playing, bronze adults visiting, bronze politicians sitting astride park benches, horses, taxpayers.

Right before the holidays we heard the news that Betty Sabo, the sculptor commissioned to create several dozen bronze Hispanic settlers sitting astride wagon carts in Old Town, will use live models for the figures. What's curious is that she specifically requested the mayor, his wife and the director of the city's cultural affairs, Millie Santillanes, to pose for her.

Sabo says we won't actually be able to recognize them in the finished piece, but she thought it would help her to have real live Hispanics as models. Whatever her skills as an artist, Sabo is clearly savvy to the realities of public art commissions, where pleasing the people who sign the checks far outweighs any potential public outcry. Successful artists have since ancient times always flattered their patrons.

Since there lingers around that particular project so much residual controversy about its origins (it has long-since had to drop all hint of any connection to Don Juan de Oñate, the original figure who was to have been memorialized), Sabo's request for prominent Hispanic models hasn't created comparatively much of a stir at all.

Still, it shows how potentially dangerous it can be to mix aesthetics with politics.

Finally, the Redstone missile which sprouted outside the temporary site of the National Atomic Museum, towering over Old Town has generated considerable heat over another public art issue: isn't celebrating weaponry best done in the privacy of one's own armory rather than out on a public intersection?

You have to admire the chutzpah of the Atomic museum folks. No shrinking violets, they. They have, so to speak, let it all hang out. Our imperial might is sticking straight up in the sky and they see nothing for which to apologize.

Now apparently, several local political figures are trying to claim that they posed for that monument, but their claims are being discounted as seriously exaggerated.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer, and not the opinions of the Alibi management or staff.

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