Everybody's a Critic

Phoenix Councilmember Howard Adams has a thing about snakes, at least snakes in art. And when artist Luis Jimenez proposed to greet visitors arriving at Sky Harbor Airport with a gigantic image of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent of Aztec mythology, Adams practically had a meltdown.

Adams didn't care what the image symbolized in Mexico. (Would he have raised the same stink over a three-story black-velvet painting of Jesus?) He didn't want some humongous feathered snake freaking out potential investors as they deplaned at the new Terminal Four. It didn't matter that the City Council's appointed arts advisers, who first saw Jimenez's proposal late last year, were already hashing over similar concerns, or that their approval was by no means certain.

Adams decided Something Must Be Done.
The result? Prodded by his assertion that the City Council wasn't getting sufficient opportunity to see the objets d'art it's funding, the Phoenix Arts Commission is proposing to allow the council's budding art critics to make their opinions felt earlier in the process. Much, much earlier.

"I recently unveiled what I thought was a very nice piece of public art up at Granada Park, a statue of a man hauling the prow of a boat out of the sand, but I've seen some councilmembers stare in disbelief at the things they've unveiled in their districts," Adams says. "All we're saying to the artists is you can't take millions of dollars of public money and then just go and do whatever you want."

Not all city councilmembers are enchanted with the notion of becoming art critics. "As long as we appoint the arts commission, that's enough involvement," says Councilmember Linda Nadolski. "I have some real difficulty with us campaigning on our art taste. I mean, can't you just see it? `Vote for me, I'm into neoclassical.'"

Adams counters: "We're not saying the council should have absolute veto power over public art projects, but there should be some direction because millions of dollars in public money are involved."

He acknowledges that each contract for a piece of public art comes before the council for approval after it passes muster with the arts commission and, usually, a host of other advisory groups. But he claims that the council action is mere formality, like approving payment of an order for office supplies, and have not included a review of the artist's concept.

Under the arts commission's three options, the City Council could review art proposals before any of its various advisory groups see them. Or the council could take its shot after a proposal is vetted by subgroups but before the Phoenix Arts Commission sees it. Or, the council could receive a "full" report once the commission and various subgroups have accepted a proposal, but before it agrees to pay the artist.

Adams, who says he hasn't had time to review the commission's ideas in detail, likes the general idea. He does say that the council is not interested in reviewing every piece of work, only the major projects "such as the new central library to be built at Deck Park."

Adams and Councilmember John Nelson are astir because library architect Will Bruder gave an earlier project, the Cholla Branch Library near Metrocenter, a futuristic design. "The Deck Park is a major project, and it's very important that the council be kept informed about the buildings that are going in around it," says Adams, who campaigned vigorously to build an Irish cottage as one of the cultural attractions at the Deck Park.

In the wake of the feathered snake controversy, the council's architectural advisers recently offered the council a detailed advance look at a proposed design concept for the city's new history museum. The concept approved by the council calls for the museum, adjacent to the Victorian-era Heritage Square, to be a semisubmerged pyramid flattened at the top to allow for a small grassy park. Sort of a southwestern version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

"We've asked to see the architectural drawings as they are developed," Adams says. "We want to see how it's going to look next to the other buildings before it's finished and we're stuck with it."

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Kathleen Stanton