Picking your spots
Job One toward the goal of changing the way the city looks was to contract William Morrish and Catherine Brown, of the Design Center for American Urban Landscape, to take a look at the town. The document produced by the consultants (Public Art Plan for Phoenix: Ideas and Visions) set the theme for the arts commission's greatest breakthrough: art's insinuation into the infrastructure of the still-growing city.
Among the Valley's "urban ingredients" studied were the local geography, roads, airports, pedestrian walkways, canals, landmarks and parks. Morrish and Brown identified points of opportunity within each of those "ingredients." "It's a very creative piece of work," says Goddard today of the Morrish-Brown study, "interpreting our own place for us, in a way we all see it intrinsically but had not really verbalized."
The next stop on the arts-commission time line was 1988, the year city voters passed a $1.1 billion bond issue that was to pay for all kinds of cultural improvements, including a new central library, an upgraded art museum and new downtown museums for science and history. Included, as well, in the bond issue was a ton more money for other, less edifying capital improvements, such as streets and sewers, and the corresponding 1 percent of that ton for art. "It was," Deborah Whitehurst says, "a vote for building a great city."
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.