Ignorance was bliss
During its infancy, the Phoenix Arts Commission was allowed to work in splendid isolation. "For the first several years," says Rich Goldsmith, an attorney and longtime commission member, "we were basically ignored." Ignored, yes. Idle, no. Much public art--including all of the work recently reviewed so positively in Newsweek, the New York Times and elsewhere--was conceived during those years out of the commission's offices at Fourth Avenue and Roosevelt.

It includes the Thomas Road overpass, Central Avenue's classy streetscape, Sunnyslope's zany tree guards, various items in pocket parks, the erector-set rainbow east of Herberger Theater Center and several attempts at airport-terminal adornment.

Other good works range from the highest-tech, neon-and-video sculpture pieces inside the entrance of America West Arena to the pretech ecoliths of the City Boundary Project in Papago Park.

The commission's high mark, the Solid Waste Management Center, hit the drawing board as the 27th Avenue landfill approached capacity. As the dump filled up, the city was faced with the costly prospect of having its garbage hauled to a landfill 20 miles north of downtown. With the idea of reducing the amount of long-haul trash (via sorting, a process that could also accommodate recycling), a transfer facility was proposed.

What city Public Works Director Ron Jensen needed, basically, was a big warehouse with garage doors at both ends. What was delivered to him, according to most analysts, was something bordering on fine art. "The concept of solid-waste facility as 'destination' was Ron's idea," says Deborah Whitehurst. "He had it in mind from the beginning." Sculptors Linnea Glatt and Michael Singer, residents of Texas and Vermont, respectively, were enlisted by the commission to help Jensen's engineers design the building. "The result is an attractive union of function and art," said Newsweek. "A building that . . . will process much of the city's garbage beckons visitors with such amenities as a public amphitheatre, a community meeting room and a library. This must be the most theatrical dump in the country." Urn, urn, urn

Strictly speaking, the idea for the Squaw Peak Pots did not gurgle up from the Phoenix Arts Commission.

The commission was asked to retrofit a little something artistic onto the parkway, itself a retrofit through several established neighborhoods. It was freeway mitigation, funded with money from the freeway-construction budget for neighborhoods that were not mitigable.

After the usual panel-review process, Mags Harries, working out of a vaguely communistic-sounding outfit named the Harries/Heder Collaborative in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was picked to handle the project.

Neighborhood workshops were arranged. Some 6,000 direct-mail pieces went out to homes and businesses in the shadow of the parkway. The workshops were advertised in the daily newspapers. Folks who had previously expressed some interest in parkway issues got personal phone calls.

Fifteen people showed up.
Six months later, comrade Harries debuted her vision to the planning and streets departments and other professionally interested parties. Two months after that, a presentation was made to the parkway's neighbors. A few more than 100 showed up, and, after Harries' slide show, the agenda collapsed. "It became a forum for people to talk about their anger over the freeway," says someone who was present.

In late 1991, the commission's PR person, who might have eased some of the coming pots-related sticker shock, was transferred to another department.

In early 1992, the pots were installed, and, in the words of Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, "the art hit the fan." Judging from the newspaper columnists and talk-radio hosts who leaped on the story, neighborhood reaction to the pots was overwhelmingly negative.

Though there seems to be increased acceptance of the artwork today, city councilmembers say the public reaction expressed to their receptionists was as bad as anything they had recently known. The stress level in the arts-commission office became "unbearable," says Pat Dowd, then coordinator for arts-in-education programming. "I answered the phone one evening at five til 5," she says, "and this person started screaming, 'I want to know who hired you, so I can have you fired!'"

Within days of the press first taking notice of the pots, the mayor had done his bit with the mock pot. He had also memo'd the city manager to review the whole artsy-fartsy mess. City Manager Frank Fairbanks responded with characteristic efficiency, delivering a seven-page, single-spaced memo outlining alterations in the city's public-art program.

Compounding the pots crisis was the state of the economy, which had finally caught up with the city's much-heralded professional-management machine. Property values dropped. Real estate taxes dropped. For the first time in Phoenix's century-plus of drafting operating budgets, the coming fiscal year's was going to be smaller than the current year's. Downsizing talk filled the air. Cop-cutting was considered. Firefighter layoffs was a possibility.

"The cost of that art could have paid for 13 police officers," barked police union official Mike Petchel to that noted arts journal the National Enquirer. "The message this artwork sends to the public is one of frivolous expenditure of taxpayers' money during tough economic times."
The Fairbanks memo was drafted in the same vein, calling for an 80 percent reduction in percent-for-art spending, cuts in the arts commission budget and a make-work quota system to funnel most artwork commissions to Arizona artists.

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