Forever Marilyn and the Permanent State of Privatized Public Art in Chicago

Jeff Huebner

The issue isn’t just whether Forever Marilyn—that new 26-foot-tall fiberglass Seven-Year-Itch-subway-grate-billowing-skirt statue on the Mag Mile is in bad taste, exploitative, kitsch, or morally or aesthetically offensive. It may be all of those things, and more.

The issue is what this latest in a series of Seward Johnson sculptures on Pioneer Court reveals about the state of public art in Chicago, the ongoing outsourcing and privatization of art in the public sphere, and the increasing interrelation among tourism, art, populism, and power.

If visitors and residents want to get a kick from gazing at a big pair of panties and snapping pictures—as long as they spend money, too—what’s the Big Deal? This is not the first time in America—and it won’t be the last—that visual art has spread its thighs on the altar of commerce (cf., Jeff Koons).

Still, what should be more offensive is the fact that the art foundation that has a deal with a realty company to install art in its plaza year after year just happened to have been founded by the sculptor himself. Convenient, eh? Johnson may live in New Jersey, but he sure knows the Chicago Way…

Think of Chicago’s most popular (or at least attention-getting) public artworks, both permanent and temporary, that have been sited in prominent central locations the last several years or so: We Will (2005), by Richard Hunt; Cloud Gate (aka, “the Bean”), by Anish Kapoor (2006); EYE, by Tony Tasset (2010); and so on. They’ve been paid for by corporate, foundation, or business-league money, with little or no public input or audience involvement. They have not been commissioned by government percent-for-art or public art programs—federal, state, or municipal—which mandate public accountability and oversight. (Not that the government may be the most optimal commissioning agency.)

Such sculptures represent the growing trend toward the privatization of public art, along with other public services (parking meters, water, garbage pickup, highways, et al). This is not all that unprecedented: Some of the Loop’s most prominent modernist abstract plaza-plopped sculptures—including Untitled (“The Picasso”), Miro’s Chicago, Chagall’s The Four Seasons, etc.–were all privately endowed.

The City of Chicago’s Public Art Program has been under the aegis of a nonprofit entity, the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, since the beginning of the year. Yet the PAP is still subject to the city ordinance that mandates 1.33 percent of construction or renovation costs for public buildings be devoted to art. In June 2007, in what amounted to a virtual city takeover, a Daley-rammed ordinance had abolished the program’s project advisory panels and public art committee, composed of community members and artists as well as city officials, granting final decision-making powers to cultural staffers.

As attorney Scott Hodes—who’d filed a series of suits against the Public Art Program over an eight-year period, resulting in public-accountability reforms–told me: “We have art that’s public, but we don’t have the public in art.”

While the city’s program continues its mundane work of filling the spaces of libraries, police stations, senior centers, airports, etc., with art, the steep decline in public building construction the last several years has meant an increase in the virtual outsourcing of populist blockbuster art—the art of showy spectacle and cultural destination and tourism revenue—to the private, corporate, and TIF sectors.

Back to Pioneer Court. The plaza adjacent to the Tribune Tower is not a nominally “public” plaza; it is a private space, owned by the Zeller Realty Group, 401 N. Michigan Ave. A few years ago, an organization called The Sculpture Foundation entered into an agreement with ZRG to program the high-profile Mag Mile space with public art. Prior to that, the plaza was often a showcase for works by Chicago and Illinois sculptors—most recently including John Henry (2006) and John Kearney (2003).

What’s not readily known—or disclosed on its website—is that TSF was founded by sculptor John Seward Johnson, Jr., heir to a Johnson & Johnson Co. fortune, to promote his own work. He’s known for his lifelike painted bronze, foam, and fiberglass sculptures of people engaged in everyday activities. (He already has a couple permanent pieces around town, including Ring Around the Rosie in Navy Pier’s Gateway Park.)

In 2007, Johnson’s King Lear was installed in Pioneer Court. In 2008, Johnson’s God Bless America was installed in Pioneer Court. That was the one that depicted the farmer-daughter couple from Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago. And now we get Forever Marilyn (1996), the latest in a series of Johnson’s huge, camera-ready, quasi-Koonsian, pop-art icons (but without the self-referential irony).

The TSF has a roster of works by 150 artists available for exhibitions and leasing, according to its website, though few, if any, of the sculptors are based in Chicago. The organization is based in Santa Monica while Johnson is based in Mercer County, New Jersey, near the Grounds for Sculpture park he established. He is 80.

“The Sculpture Foundation and the Zeller Realty group have worked in collaboration selecting and siting the sculptures on the plaza,” TSF executive director Paul Stoeke e-mailed me. “The Foundation does not pay the Zeller group for plaza access. We are not limiting the selections to Johnson works. The three placements to date have been ideally suited to the location and carefully chosen with regard to aesthetics, scale, content and appeal.”

Viewers, commentators, and newspapers have complained of the Marilyn statue’s crass tastelessness and exploitative titillation. Fine—but so what? There’s little that can be done. We (taxpayers) didn’t pay for it—it’s not ours. It was inflicted on us without our consultation and debate. If it had been “public,” we may have had the right to criticize.  We could’ve complained about how we never knew about the public meetings in which it was proposed and discussed. But because it’s a private work sited on corporate space, well, then, it’s the company’s right to do whatever it wants. Right?

If “public” art is increasingly being created, selected, funded, and sited on prominent urban spaces without any public input or open, democratic process, what are the rights of citizens? As more public services and amenities, like art and aesthetic infrastructure, become privatized, and the public civic sphere continues to disappear, it will become more difficult for citizens to challenge an antidemocratic and unaccountable system.

Ever since the “Cows on Parade” project in 1999—which boosted the local economy by about $200 million, according to city officials—public art in suburbanized, postindustrial Chicago has become more about revenue enhancement and economic impact and fun interaction than an engagement with place, history, critical issues, and ideas. Where has all the content gone? Celebrated public works like Kapoor’s “Bean” represent the ultimate triumph of spectacle—and commerce–over substance, of circus over bread.

What the new public art amounts to is “the erasure of the line between art and entertainment” where works “count as neither public discourse nor art” and offer only an “easily assimilated diversion that poses no threat to settled understandings of the self or the world,” according to poet-critic John Beer in the essay “From Picasso to the Cows,” about the disappearance of a seriously imaginative and provocative civic art in Chicago. (Context #13, Summer 2003, University of Illinois-Urbana.)

In addition: Forever Marilyn–and Johnson’s continued incursions into the heart of the city—represent an insult to Chicagoland’s astonishingly numerous, talented, and diverse sculpture community. And it depicts a movie scene associated with New York City—even though it was actually filmed in a soundstage. (So when will the Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues statues get here?)

Johnson’s previous foray into Pioneer Court, God Bless America (the American Gothic couple), included a suitcase plastered with global ports of call where American jobs were being outsourced from office towers like those that surround the sculpture site. Let’s hope that Chicago sculptors won’t soon join them.

I’m still waiting for an artist to propose a giant expired parking meter sculpture as a memorial to Daley II and his privatization fiascos.


Jeff Huebner is a Chicago-based art writer, journalist, and author who writes frequently on public art. His books include: Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures (Ivan R. Dee, 2000); and Bob Emser: American Sculptor (2008).