This article is part of Chicago Art Magazine’s “40 over 40” series.
Elizabeth Kelley is the Director of Chicago’s Public Art Program, which has commissioned artwork for public spaces and buildings since 1978. More than 500 works of public art adorn the city’s streets, parks and facilities. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Millennium Park is one of Kelley’s favorites because it reflects the constantly changing environment.“You would be hard pressed to find someone in the art world who doesn’t think that it’s a terrific object as art, and then it’s beloved by the public as well. That’s a rare recipe for a large-scale work that has no sentimental or historic attachment to it.” Kelley makes sure that at least 51 percent of the city’s collection is reserved for Chicago-based artists. “I would encourage artists to seize the opportunity to push the limits of their ideas and the funding allocated to a project. Safe and predictable ideas and forms do not make for provocative and enduring works of public art.” The city ordinance concerning decisions on art commissions was revised in 2007. In the past a project advisory panel of seven people made recommendations to a larger body of art professionals and city commissioners. Now the system is more of a community allowing for more voices in the evaluation of a potential work.
Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle reveals the hybrid meanings behind our social iconography. His sculptures, video installations and prints use robust technological systems to fabricate familiar images such as the mushroom cloud and DNA. “I’m most comfortable when I’m not in control. So I often make work in which I almost attempt to make my hand disappear.” His visually beautiful pieces conceptualize hard, ugly and often contradictory political issues such as nuclear warfare, immigration and human cloning. He believes what makes public art is not necessarily the object, but rather the conversations that take place because of the work. “The true generators of image, of ideas, are a vast compendium of people and factors rather than artists in their studio. So much has penetrated the process that the work—its authorship—is exploded and unlocatable.” From the 1993 Chicago public art project, Culture in Action, Manglano-Ovalle founded Street-Level Youth Media. His work “La Tormenta/The Storm” can be seen in the Federal Building for Homeland Security and Immigration Services at 101 Congress Parkway. He currently lives and works in Chicago and continues to have major exhibitions across the globe.
Joel Straus is a public art consultant who manages the works of unique and challenging spaces including McCormick Place South in Chicago, the largest convention center in the western hemisphere that has close to 3 million visitors every year. “This complex gets a cross-section of humanity from every continent, race, gender, everything.” His consulting business, established in 1996, provides planning, procurement, management and appraisal services to corporations, hotels, foundations, municipalities, and private collectors across the country. Large commercial spaces can be a curator’s nightmare, but Straus handles them with expertise and focus making unconventional contemporary art pieces seem as if they are in their natural environment. “Public art is almost subversive. Maybe people see it and maybe they don’t, but with art being insinuated into their lives, they get their art without quite realizing it.” Originally practiced as an artist, he is sensitive to the artist’s perspective but contributes his extensive knowledge of the highly involved business when it comes to public art.
Lynn Basa is the author of The Artist’s Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions. Her work is represented in hospitals, hotels, airports and corporate headquarters throughout the country. “There is this avant-garde attitude that has come about with the advent of modernism that if your work is accessible to and popular with the public then it somehow doesn’t fit the criteria of a serious artwork. But I have a pleaser type of personality. I want to beautify the world and engage the public in my art.” Basa says the most successful public art is completely site-integrated and has the artist present from the very beginning. The entire environment should be considered within the context of the space’s function. In addition to having completed numerous public art commissions Basa also teaches in the Sculpture department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Mary Jane Jacob-
Mary Jane Jacob was curator to the streets during the 1992-93 public art series, Culture in Action. “People were screaming and yelling that if art has a purpose then it is not art anymore.” She believes the life of public art is prolonged by the invitation for discussion and debate no matter if the art is fleeting, temporary or permanent. The process of “creative chaos” does not always yield an outcome or final product. Public artists are more concerned with where the art will go, metaphysically speaking. “If one piece of art worked for somebody, one time in their life—that’s beautiful. If they never look at art again, I don’t care, because it worked.” Mary Jane Jacobs is the author/co-author of several books including, Learning Mind: Experience into Art, Conversations at The Castle: Changing Audiences and Contemporary Art, On the Being of Being an Artist and Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art. She is the recipient of many grants, awards, fellowships and residencies. At the 2010 College Art Association conference, she was awarded the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award and the Award for Achievement in the Field of Public Art. She is currently the Director of Exhibitions and a professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Jon Pounds/ Olivia Gude-
Jon Pounds and Olivia Gude’s early public work involved creating temporary street installations. “We did non-permission public pieces, and that just got us arrested which is okay. But our first permanent work was a playground in our neighborhood.” In 1983 they joined Chicago Public Art Group and began creating collaborative public artworks creating sculptures and murals. “For people today it’s almost hard to remember that just 45 or 50 years ago the level of engagement with public art was really low. Public art was largely bronzes of men on horseback.” They both saw the need to carefully organize and manage the resources for large-scale projects. Pounds became the part-time Director of CPAG in 1989 and committed himself to making art respond more fully to the community’s needs. “Modernism created a breach between art and the people. Art became a sign of the specialist. It was a significant loss because people were no longer integrating their own creativity into their everyday lives.” Pounds was the project sculptor and general manager for the 1994-1998 $330,000 Water Marks mosaic installation at Navy Pier in Chicago, the largest community art project in the nation to that time. In 2000, Pounds was the lead consultant to the Chicago Transit Authority as it prepared to initiate its first official public art program.
Olivia Gude has participated in public art for 20 years creating over 30 large-scale mural and mosaic projects. She works primarily with inter-generational groups, teens, elders, and children. “I want to extend the street mural form to incorporate oral history, quotations, and poetry created out of everyday language.” In 2000, Gude co-wrote the first book devoted to Chicago community public art, Urban Art Chicago: a Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures. That same year she was appointed a Great Cities Scholar at the University of Illinois to develop the Contemporary Community Curriculum Initiative, a project in which art teachers collaboratively developed curriculum based on postmodernism and public issues. “Art that has the potential to create discussions about the contradictions of civic and personal life in complex times.” Gude is also the Director of the Spiral Workshop, a UIC-based Saturday art program for teens. She is currently the Coordinator of Art Education and a Professor in the School of Art and Design at UIC. She is an active member of the Illinois Arts Council Artist-in-Residency program and is a member of the Senior Artist Circle of the Chicago Public Art Group.