And I went from solemnly swearing that I would not die and be buried in Arizona to fervently embracing its alien physical landscape and the ever-changing urban and cultural landscape that's developed here over time.

But some things never seem to change. Painful memories of the Squaw Peak Pots were resurrected for all public art supporters this past December. That's when the City Manager's Office unilaterally decided that Phoenix should not enter into a $2.4 million contract for the construction of a monumental wind-driven sculpture, designed by internationally renowned Boston artist Janet Echelman and inspired by the fleeting blossom of Arizona's singular saguaro.

Echelman's sculpture, which generally has been lauded in smart quarters as iconic and a critical part of downtown's revitalization, was specifically designed to anchor Civic Space Park, 2.7 acres just north of Van Buren between Central and First avenues, adjacent to ASU's new downtown campus, with the lion's share of its contract price going to Tucson-based Caid Industries Inc. for the piece's engineering, fabrication, and installation. It's to be crafted from UV-impervious, Teflon-coated thread netting that's been used for more than 40 years in very harsh conditions, according to Phoenix architect Will Bruder, who used the same stuff for the north-facing sails of the Burton Barr Central Library. The ethereal sculpture, 98 feet in diameter, will be suspended almost 60 feet above ground, its magical shape-shifting quality provided by the wind, with subtly changing colored uplights illuminating it at night. The piece's elevated design maximizes the park's space for visitors and would serve as the perfect symbol identifying Phoenix to the outside world as an eternally changing metropolis, both physically and culturally.

Artist's rendering of the as yet untitled Janet Echelman sculpture.
courtesy of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture
Artist's rendering of the as yet untitled Janet Echelman sculpture.
The Echelman sculpture up-close.
courtesy of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture
The Echelman sculpture up-close.

The city manager's puzzling recommendation was made despite the city having already paid a substantial design fee to Echelman, not to mention the untold hours invested in the project's development by city staff, contractors, private citizens, and the artist herself.

The reason for dumping the Echelman project? It supposedly would cause at least a three-month delay of the November 2008 opening of the park, which was scheduled to happen simultaneously with the launch of the light rail and other new downtown developments. However, a side-by-side review of proposed park construction schedules — both with and without the art — drafted by park contractor Foresite Design & Construction, Inc. and freely available to the City Manager's Office, reveals that the delay involved was actually projected to be a grand total of two weeks, not three months.

Let's keep it real, folks. This was a purely political move in tanking economic times designed by City Manager Frank Fairbanks and deputy manager Ed Zuercher to blatantly circumvent the bureaucratic steps put in place years ago to ensure fairness in the public arts selection process.

"I spent a year of my life crafting what was eventually called a 'memorandum of understanding,'" says Lewis and Roca attorney Richard Goldsmith, a member of the Phoenix Arts Commission from 1998 to 2004 and chair of the Art in Public Places Committee during the height of the pots debacle. That memorandum of understanding was a carefully drafted compromise hammered out between the Arts Commission, whose very existence was on the line because of the pots, and city staff, including the mayor, city council and city manager's office, regarding the public process, procedures and guidelines for public art selection and execution. It also provided for extensive community input and participation.

Funny that the proposed contract-nixing also just happened to occur after the sculpture was shrilly criticized by a chorus of disgruntled citizens squeezed by yet another economic slowdown, most of whom never participated in the selection process. These armchair cowboy critics — people who apparently can't get past kitschy kokopellis, howling coyotes, and cutesy cacti — predictably screamed about the sculpture being "too arty" and City Hall squandering unspeakable sums on a piece of sculpture when Phoenix was in the throes of a serious budgetary shortfall caused by a nose-diving housing market and flaccid sales tax revenues.

People still don't grasp that Phoenix's public art is paid for by Percent for Art money, and not out of the city's general fund. I asked, and it turns out that one penny of every dollar the city spends on public construction (with the exception of land purchases and the cost of any equipment for essential city services, such as computers, cars, fire trucks, police cars and sanitation trucks) gets put in this fund and cannot be used for anything other than art.

Armed with facts, ferocity, cell phones, and one hell of an e-mail list, the local arts community, supported by downtown business-development coalitions, and citizen support groups, rallied the troops and elegantly took down the opposition at council meetings and in print. To their credit, Mayor Phil Gordon and most of the City Council had the huevos rancheros to go forward with the Echelman contract, in spite of naysayers who variously described the Echelman sculpture as looking like an upside-down cowpie, a floating jellyfish, or an empty thought bubble.

So what's made the difference between the general reaction to the infamous pots and to Echelman's proposed sculptural piece?

Most people opine that the change is due to Phoenix's significant urbanization in the past few years. And with it has come a certain urbanity as well. There's been an influx of people from large urban centers like L.A., New York, and Chicago, as well as growing Hispanic, Indian, Pakistani, African, Chinese and Southeast Asian populations, all of which have resulted in cultural and political diversity. We no longer see second-residence citizens fleeing from the summer heat and donating funds and art only to their original hometown cultural institutions. Business is also on board, having realized that not everyone in the universe is a sports fan and that unique public art can bring in big tourist bucks and resuscitate moribund downtown areas, as Chicago's Millennium Park has done.

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2 comments
Special Ed
Special Ed

I'm so glad Vanesian is now happy with our backward little burg. Funny how I moved here at the same time and didn't have any of her reactions to my new home. I guess I'm just too stupid to have realized how bad it was here.

Disgusted
Disgusted

Echelman's psychedelic floating blue cowpie fails a few basic tests of public art. The sculpture neither originates from the its location, nor does it reflect its location in any meaningful way. It is invasive and confrontational as only a floating blue bag can be. Claims that it evokes a "cactus flower" are risible as it neither resembles a cactus flower in shape or color.

Phoenix has many highly skilled local artists, some of whom are no strangers to public commissions and public art, most of whom could very easily have submitted plans that were far more appropriate in both appearance and representation. Why one of these was not employed is one of the enduring mysteries of "Phoenix public art" subsidy, which persists in hiring out-of-region (out-of-state not being far enough away) artists who impose their work on a population that finds said work an affront on several levels.

Karen Vanesian's unwarranted attacks on Phoenix locals are offensive. When a carpetbagging CALIFORNIAN can lecture Arizonans about their Philistinism with impunity in what is supposedly a Phoenix paper, it's time to stop supporting that paper. She can go back to where she came from. She has worn out her welcome. She can take the pots with her.

Finally, I think there's valid concern about the mechanisms, procedures and costs of upkeep and cleaning of this piece of work. Echelman's sculpture looks like it will function as a large guano trap, in which case it really will be a floating piece of shit, hanging in the air, waiting for gravity to do its work.

 
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