Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Another arts flap we need to live down

Before the Actors Theatre of Charlotte's recent play, "Southern Rapture," there was the 1996-97"Angels in America" flap that inspired that new play. And before "Angels" there was "Gumby." All are part of Charlotte's continuing uneasy relationship with "art." And maybe a new National Endowment of the Arts grant will help redeem the city, in some small way, from its "Gumby"-tainted history.

Because the Angels flap made national news – it sparked a sort of revenge-on-the-gays vote by the then-county commissioners, who axed the county's yearly allocation for the Arts & Science Council and then, except for the eternal Bill James, all lost their next elections – it lives on on local memory (and embarrssment).

But an earlier, similarly embarrassing flap came in 1987. The city's public art commission chose a semi-abstract bronze work by noted sculptor Joel Shapiro for the to-be-built-and-now-already-demolished Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. Morning DJs John Boy and Billy and plenty of other folks ridiculed the piece. Among them was arts commission member Robert Cheek, who dubbed it "Gumby." And to be just, there is a certain familial resemblance to the '50s claymation fellow. (Art gallery owner Cheek pleaded guilty a few years later to cocaine smuggling and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.)

So the City Council in an act of not-unprecedented spinelessness, rejected the Shapiro work. Instead the city chose a work by Maya Lin – a collection of Burford hollies supposed to look like balls rolling downhill. It, too, was demolished. Shapiro went on to worldwide fame and success – his works are now at the National Gallery in Washington and art museums in Houston, New Orleans, Raleigh and even on the Davidson College campus. That $400,000 sculpture would have bought the city a work surely worth many multiples of that today. But no, our elected officials instead consulted the drive-time DJs about their cultural purchases and exhibited the political spines of earthworms.

Redemption ahead? Recent news says we got a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to go toward a monumental sculpture costing approximately $300,000 at the planned Romare Bearden park uptown (named for the Charlotte-born artist) near the Panthers' stadium. Is it too late to get something by Joel Shapiro? Maybe. And anyway, Shapiro (who has sold numerous other copies of the model he did for our city) might not want to play. In 1993, in conjunction with an exhibition that included the model for "Gumby," he opted against returning here to be on a panel. Of the brouhaha here, he told Observer reporter Ricki Morell, "It was a farce and quite humiliating. It was a low point in my career."

And by 1993, even the DJs were having second thoughts. "John Boy" Isley told Morell: "I've grown attached to it over the years. Viewing the bushes that are at the Coliseum now [the now-demolished Maya Lin art], maybe we were a little harsh on Gumby."


Anonymous said...

For $300,000, mostly paid by our tax money, it sure better be a monumental sculpture uptown and not an immemorable one like Gumby or the bushes at the old Coliseum. Mary, how often did you take out-of-state guests to Tyvola Road to marvel at Maya Lin’s “masterpiece”? My neighbor’s hedges are more interesting, and he had to pay for them on his lonesome.

For $300,000, the city could buy a Rolls Royce and charge tourists $100 an hour to drive it around uptown. That way they could be part of a work of art and help finance it.

And Romare Bearden? Let’s see….let me get a piece of composition board out of the garage, cut and paste some cloth and paper dolls on it, seal it with polymer, and voila! I’m now a creative genius. That will be $1.2 million, please.

Fortunately, art is in the eye of the beholder, not in the imaginations of self-appointed experts.

Anonymous said...

Really Mary, did you think the Gumby sculpture was all that great? we could have done better, and we have many times ever since. I piecs of trendy 80's boxes shaped like a human does not evoke as much creativity anymore than some ornimantal piece of art in front of a corporate office park. Even many of our office parks have much better scupltures than the Gumby would have been. This was a dead issue over 20 years ago. Obviously, you still ahven't gotten over it.

Anonymous said...

Google 'Joel Shapiro' and you can see he does the same things over and over again everywhere. Charlotte made the right call.

Anonymous said...

Just because some artist became famous doesn't mean every piece of art he makes is a masterpiece. Piccaso made a lot of clay pots, but they are not considered the same as his paintings. The reality is that art work didn't work with the community at the time; looking back in hind sight is so easy to do... but even still, it's pretty dorky looking.

Anonymous said...

During the Angels fiasco, I was unlucky enough to be working for Tom Bush, then-Chairman of the County Commission and one of the "Gang of Five." I had to take all the constituents' calls and listen to all the bitching, moaning and complaining from the arts community and everyone else, because Mr. Bush wouldn't take any of the calls. It was too much stress for one person, and I learned to never, EVER work for a politician again. I e-mailed the creator of the "Angels" play, but never heard back from him. I guess he wasn't interested to hear the REAL story behind this fiasco!

TheGruche said...

These arts controversies and the comments above are why Charlotte is viewed as a cultural backwater by the rest of the country. It's a shame, because we have a lot of great things going on it the arts. Unfortunately, we also seem to have a large group of prople that see art bashing as an easy way to whip up a mob and promote their self interests.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to have one of Picasso's clay pots.

Mary, why open yourself up to something so subjective? Perhaps it's an attempt to start conversation....which is, afterall what art is all about.

Whatever we do - PLEASE don't have the same folks who approved the light rail 'art' work on this!

Anonymous said...

Why should the taxpayers pay for some art that politicians picked because of their snobby attitudes. I know better than the taxpayer. And to THEGRUCHE where the hell are you from. I don't think you're from Charlotte area.

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Mary said...

A couple of posts back there was some concern about affordable housing. $300,000 spent on helping the poor would be a more "Christian" thing to do than buying a sculpture.

Anonymous said...

Let's hire and ex-City Council member at say, $100k and call h/her Director of Art Decisions. Then, let's see if they can find an additional $400K to fund more clay disks and broken terra cotta mosaics. Oh, and can I suggest we paint any and all bridges ORANGE?

Thank you, Joe Charlottean the tax payer.

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Anonymous said...

So what exactly was entertaining or commendable about “Angels in America”?

I may be old-fashioned, but I still use the “Mom” gauge for judging art and/or entertainment. If you’d be ashamed or embarrassed to take your Mom to a particular movie, play or art exhibit, then it isn’t art or entertainment.

“Angels in America” wasn’t art or entertainment. It was an excuse, an apology and a sorry rationalization. It was an embarassment not only to Mom, but to mainstream gays who consider public flaunting crass and crude. It was like sexting, only worse.

Mary Newsom said...

Just a factual clarification so you'll know which governmental body to be mad at (or happy with): County money, not city, pays for park purchasing and development. The elected officials would be county commissioners, not city council members.

Anonymous said...

Mary, since you answer a comment about the word "czar", is it reasonable to ask why you have NEVER - not once - answered a comment asking how you propose to PAY for any of your proposals?

The US is $12 trillion in debt, Obama's budget plan adds another $10 trillion through 2019, plus the feds have backstopped another $10.4 trillion and there are $53 trillion (minimum) in unfunded future liabilities.

I will leave it to you to do the math to figure out what each US household's share of those debts is. And then I will ask you:

Where is the money going to come from? This is a far more serious issue than the use of the word "czar", and I hope you'll agree it deserves your attention.

Where is the money going to come from?

Anonymous said...

County, City, state or federal, they're all the same, Mary. They're government wasting our public tax dollars on what some fool calls art.

Let private individuals, coporations and museums buy art. Please put my tax dollars to better public use.

Anonymous said...

To be seen on future clothing:

"I paid county taxes for 37 years, and all I got was a $300,000 monumental sculpture and this tee-shirt".

Cato said...

Does it ever occur to our local art-f@rts that the general public doesn't really care for abstract art and in fact thinks it's a joke?

Very few people object in principle to the idea of public art. What they don't like is being forced to spend tax dollars on some nonsensical whirlygig that says more about the contempt that the artists and the bodies that fund them have for the average citizen than anything else.

Of course, representational art - likenesses of people and renderings of events, the sort of cultural markers that can actually resonate with people - has become a minefield. Who is depicted, in what way, in what proportions and by whom and the rest of the tedious blessings of diversity.

Avoiding that is understandable. We wouldn't want another round of stories that depicted us in a bad light to our betters in Manhattan and San Francisco. And how would Mary be able to show her face in Cambridge?

Charlotte's artistic pretensions remind me of Hannibal Lecter's first meeting with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs:

You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed...

Anonymous said...

This is exactly why gov't should not be in the business of art.

Anonymous said...

Many of America's great leaders grew up in small towns, where the only public "artwork" was a monument or memorial to fallen war dead. Those rubes managed to mature into responsible adults without the need for a depictation of a Rubik's cube or the placement of a wishing well on the town square.

Anonymous said...

I object in principle to funding public art, and I don't think there are just a few of us who do. Ditto for monuments and depictations, which may or may not be art in the eyes of the beholder.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is a monument, and a very dramatic work of art in my eyes that physically conveys how the escalation of that futile conflict resulted in the exponential escalation of the deaths of American youth. It was paid for through private contributions,not out of federal tax funds.

I don't know if the land on which it sits was donated by the federal government. The problem is, why is a statue, fountain, or Gumby to which even a minority of taxpayers object - allowed to be placed on public tax-paid land on the first place?

Government of, for and by the people shouldn't be funding or supporting anything that depicts a point of view, political or othwerwise, or which attempts to convey what one group thinks is right or wrong. Next thing you know, the KKK will want to build a monumental artwork on that same public park uptown.

I Got Your Gruche Right Here said...

TheGruche said : "These arts controversies and the comments above are why Charlotte is viewed as a cultural backwater by the rest of the country."

Can you please prove your claim by citing the source of your demographic information?

And no, the art critics at the New Yawk Times and San Francisco Chronicle are not authorities on who or what is "backwater". Maybe you should have taken some other college courses besides Basket Weaving and Clay Pots 101.

Anonymous said...

Mary, what does Robert Cheek's prison sentence have to do with his ability to judge whether something is memorable "art", or just meaningless hodge-podge? Why did you bring up that prison term in the first place? Talk about small-town attitudes.

So I am to infer from you that Galileo's imprisonment by the Inquisition means he was not much of a scientist?

Anonymous said...

The subsequent defeat at the polls of most of the "Gang of Five" didn't mean that voters felt the Commission lacked proper appreciation of the arts.

It meant that prejudicial, mean-spiritedness on the part of public officials - racial or homophobic - would not be tolerated in this county.

It did not mean voters endorsed smut like "Angels in America". Smut is still smut.

Anonymous said...

To Anon at 07:07 pm above:

We Char-Meck folks are just unsophisticated rubes because we objected to our public tax dollars funding the full- frontal nudity (FFN) of “Angels in America”.

You see, if you don’t like to see FFN in public, which of course is high art and merits all sorts of awards and acclaim, obviously something is terribly wrong with you.

I saw a lot of FFN as a bachelor in my salad days. My wife and I experience quite a bit of it in our bedroom. But it ain’t art if it ain’t done in public. Get it?

No, neither do I.

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Anonymous said...

The national debt is currently about $11,230,986,457,444.74.

The current population of the United States is around 306,140,570.

That's about $36,685.72 per person.

Big frigging deal. I bet most of you anti-tax, anti government-spending troglodytes spent or are spending that much on your gas-guzzling, smog-producing, freeway-clogging, accident-causing SUV.

Where will we get the money? From those who have more of it than they know what to do with.


Jumper said...

Cato as Hannibal Lecter?

3:12 was right. Repetitive, unoriginal. Charlotte does however possess the sort of rube-ness that makes it fear originality. What would the neighbors say? Better stick with something some other city has done first.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised that the disks on South Blvd. by Thomas Sayre were okayed.

Anonymous said...

Jumper how are those disks on south blvd original? Those disks are in other cities around the country. It just goes to show you that art sponsored by government is the least original around. If you are looking for original art go to Hart Witzen gallery in NODA. The best thing is it is not sudsidized by taxpayers.

Jumper said...

There was a local writer that has charged the disks unoriginal but after searching widely on the net for almost an hour, I couldn't find anything similar at all. That writer's original link no longer works.

And the artist was not imported from too far away, being a NC resident.

Anonymous said...

To the poster that stated "That's about $36,685.72 per person.

Big frigging deal. I bet most of you anti-tax, anti government-spending troglodytes spent or are spending that much on your gas-guzzling, smog-producing, freeway-clogging, accident-causing SUV."

Guess you wouldn't mind picking up my families measly portion then, since it is no "Big frigging deal"?

BTW, I live within my means and keep credit cards paid off each month.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:04 I agree I live within my means as well. It's ashame when politicians can't do the same. The only thing they are worried about is getting elected and power. This nonsense has got to stop or this country will be bankrupt.