From the once-controversial Pablo Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza to Anish Kapoor’s massive Cloud Gate (better known as “The Bean”) in Millennium Park, Chicago’s downtown is a world-renowned place to experience public art, according to Patricia Walsh from the non-profit Americans for the Arts.
Chicagoans and tourists have marveled at, argued over, and slid down The Picasso ever since then-Mayor Richard J. Daley unveiled it in 1967. Some told oral historian Studs Terkel they saw “a piece of scrap metal” when they looked at the 50-foot tall, 162-ton sculpture. Others saw a wonderful work of art that looked different each time they passed it.
Love it or hate it, The Picasso has become a noteworthy feature of the Chicago landscape. It speaks to the city’s boldness — and its commitment to public art.
But outside of downtown, where is Chicago’s public art? How do residents find it? And who decides where new acquisitions go? Turns out, Chicago has a public art plan that includes everything from distribution to maintenance.
You have to see ‘The Bean’
On a subzero Tuesday in January, it’s clear Chicago has done a good job of selling this 110-ton stainless steel sculpture to tourists. A couple from Jordan, a family from Texas, and a mother and son from Germany all insisted it was a must-see on their trip.
Sadie Dess said her family was on their way to the airport when she asked them to stop at Millennium Park to snap a photo of “The Bean.” Sniffling and hatless, Dess said, “I’ve just always seen pictures of it, so I wanted to see it.”
Katharina, a German tourist who didn’t give her last name, said: “‘The Bean’s’ accessibility is important because not everyone has connection with culture.”
She smiled at her son, Kilian, a football fan who said he hoped the Chicago Bears made it to the Super Bowl. Kilian said he watches the NFL every Sunday in Germany, and was eager to see Soldier Field during their first trip to the U.S. (but he wasn’t into going to museums). His mother's solution: “But if you have culture in the streets …it’s good.”
How’s that working for public art beyond downtown?
Chicagoans themselves sometimes seem less informed about the breadth of the city’s public collection, and where to find it across Chicago.
But Mark Kelly, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said he wants to get tourists to the neighborhoods, too. It’s a commitment the department outlined in 2017 in its first-ever Chicago Public Art Plan.
According to a list of public art the department maintains, the most robust part of its collection is on display at public library branches, including works by well-known Chicago sculptor Nick Cave at the West Chicago Avenue Branch in Austin and muralist Hebru Brantley at the Greater Grand Crossing Branch.
There are also more than 20 pieces of public art along King Drive that the department maintains.
A work to inspire young readers
Internationally known Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall said his first commissioned art work for Chicago was for a public library branch. His experience illustrates the importance of keeping public art accessible to all communities.
His canvas “Knowledge and Wonder” had been on display at the Legler Branch library in West Garfield Park since 1995. Marshall described the image as “built around a series of books that kind of hover in a galaxy at the edge of which the kids that are standing there on the floor plan can peer out and peer in and peer through.”
But Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Kelly from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events announced last October they were planning to sell “Knowledge and Wonder.” The artist said he was disappointed in that news, as the painting was done specially for the library and community.
Officials said the sale of “Knowledge and Wonder” would help fund more public art and programs at the library. Marshall recently said that was a bad plan.
“What you don’t expect is that when you’re doing work for a public place, for public access, and especially a library, you don’t expect anybody to ever think about selling that work,” he said at his Bronzeville studio.
Marshall said he thinks officials got “swept up in a moment.” They announced the sale after one of Marshall’s other works had sold for more than $21 million.
After a public outcry, Emanuel and Kelly backed off plans to sell the painting.
Department spokeswoman Christine Carrino said “Knowledge and Wonder” is currently in storage, and they haven’t determined yet when it will be back on display at the Legler Library.
Breaking down Chicago’s public art collection
Although the city has no official public directory of the art it maintains, WBEZ obtained a list of the 500 public art pieces in the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events’ collection through a public records request. Not reflected in that list is art maintained by other city agencies, like the Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Public Schools, and Chicago Park District.
Of Chicago’s 61 zip codes, all but six have one of the city’s Public Art Program’s works. Those six zip code areas include the Altgeld Gardens, Galewood, Lincoln Park, Rogers Park, Uptown, and West Ridge neighborhoods. The most robust collection is in the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop, with more than 60 works.
The complete list has not been public — until now. Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events officials said they are working with other city agencies to collect information on all public art throughout the city.
Chicago has a plan
Two years ago, and 50 years after the former Mayor Richard J. Daley commissioned The Picasso, Chicago formalized a plan for managing and growing its public art.
The Chicago Public Art Plan outlines a series of recommendations, including more transparency from the city about what and where public art can be experienced around the city.
Officials said one obstacle to a complete directory in one place is the fact that many city agencies commission and manage public art. Kelly said he wants to create a searchable database that would allow residents and tourists to wander past downtown and into the neighborhoods. He wouldn’t put a deadline on when that database could be a reality.
Kelly did push a Mural Registry Ordinance that the City Council passed last year. That happened after a series of well-known murals in neighborhoods were mistakenly painted over by city workers. He said the registry would also serve as a catalog to promote all the murals that appear from viaducts to office buildings.
But, the registry is still behind the scenes. Erin Harkey, deputy commissioner at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said the department is still “outlining the guidelines and procedures,” but said it would be public at the end of February or early March.
How much does it cost to maintain the public art program?
The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events’ $36 million budget for 2019 doesn’t include a specific line item for “public art.” That program has its own $2.7 million budget, Harkey said; $100,000 is allocated for conservation, which includes the maintenance of works. But more than $55,000 is allocated for “TBD Conservation.” Spokeswoman Christine Carrino said there is no deadline to determine where specifically that money will go.
It would be easy to think: “Doesn’t it cost thousands to just clean ‘The Bean’? How could the city allocate just $100,000 for 500 separate works?”
“The Bean” and “The Picasso,” two of the city’s most advertised and tourist-friendly works of public art, aren't included in the department’s collection. “The Bean” is maintained by The Millennium Park Foundation. “The Picasso” is handled by the Public Building Commission of Chicago. Plus, not each work needs maintenance every year.
The Public Art Plan lists a "Public Art Fund" as a way to get work into more neighborhoods, but there’s no fund at this point. Kelly has said he would like private developers to commit to public art in new buildings. It’s just one of the aspects of protecting and enhancing Chicago’s public art that likely will fall to the city’s new mayor and city council.
It might help them to know that Walsh, from Americans for the Arts, credits Chicago’s plan with spurring other major cities like Boston to take a deeper look at their commitment to public art.
Carrie Shepherd is a WBEZ reporter who covers arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.