Critical mass
Last July, Newsweek said, "Phoenix is on the cutting edge of the movement to meld art and public works." A month later, the New York Times added, "Phoenix has shown that our capacity for invention is far from all used up." In October, the Chicago Tribune noted that "painstaking efforts at municipal reform and innovation" have made Phoenix "the 1990s' City That Works."

The catalyst for all three articles was the work of the Phoenix Arts Commission. The reviews together were the single greatest burst of positive national publicity Phoenix had received in recent memory. For once, the Eastern Media Elite had noticed Phoenix for something other than its loony-tunes politics and land fraud.

Bill Hardin, a local attorney and arts commission member, says that kind of publicity helps America "overcome the inchoate sense that Phoenix is a second-tier place to live." It's helpful, economic-developmentwise, "that a guy in New York or Los Angeles can pick up a paper and read that Phoenix is culturally progressive and culturally important," Hardin adds.

And who could argue? But this art-appreciation stuff gets tricky. To many local residents, the arts commission has only created controversy. This was the gang, after all, that gave us the infamous Squaw Peak Pots, that daffy urnware collection tacked on to the north-south parkway through central Phoenix.

To Big Media, though, the "dynamic" and "enlightened" commission, led by director Deborah Whitehurst, created a new chapter in American art by turning "public art into something worthy of the legendary WPA"--the Depression-era employment agency that commissioned artists and writers to create for the public good.

This arts commission's big innovation, in its admirers' eyes, has been its combining of artists and engineers at the design stages of public projects, including freeways, parks, warehouses and bridges.

"Perhaps the most striking example," gushed Newsweek's Strycker McGuire, "is a highway overpass." That would be the big hunk of gray concrete at Thomas Road and the Squaw Peak Parkway, where artist Marilyn Zwak designed support columns to resemble reptiles, then cajoled nearby residents to press their own tchotchkes into adobe panels hung on the structure's walls.

The New York Times' Herbert Muschamp was equally bedazzled by the artist-engineer partnership evident in the Phoenix Solid Waste Management Center, a garbage-transfer warehouse and recycling center on the southwest side. "With its newest public art project," glowed Muschamp of the New Age dump, "the program has moved out of the realm of metaphor and begun to alter reality," whatever that means.

Gail Goldman, public-art coordinator for San Diego's arts and culture commission, says, "Those articles . . . they're the envy of the entire public-art field. We all sort of said, 'Wow, wouldn't it be nice?'" She adds that arts officials everywhere "I'm sure replaced 'Phoenix' and 'Deborah Whitehurst' with their city and their name."

As the smoochy reviews poured in, however, Phoenix itself was gearing up to replace Deborah Whitehurst. The arts commission that created the artwork and public works that sparked all the fine notices has essentially disintegrated.

The explanations for the commission's downfall vary from source to source.
Managers of the city government say that the economic downturn of two years ago halted most new building, the funding engine to which the arts commission's most visible and successful program--public art--is hitched.

Elected officials opine that the commission's decline is more or less "right-sizing," an extravagant department trimmed to incorporate the artistic vision of more "community members" and fewer fine-arts professionals.

Artsy types blame a bureaucratic conspiracy fomented by bottom-liners out to kill culture.

Conspiracy theorists even see pregubernatorial-primary jockeying.
Their scenario: It's the populist, family-man gubernatorial candidate-to-be (Paul Johnson) gutting the highbrow programs installed by his egghead predecessor (Terry Goddard, also a candidate for governor).

Whatever the cause, the effect on the Phoenix Arts Commission--and the city's hot-list public-art program--has been devastating. At least a half-dozen key staffers, including Whitehurst, the commission's founding director, have left the department in the last year. Phoenix's spending on public art has plummeted from a high of almost $3 million in 1990 to less than $800,000 just three years later. And, perhaps worst of all, the commission's autonomy from political meddling has apparently disappeared.

For, as 1994 dawned, Phoenix's mayor went public with his own peculiar vision for a brand-new public-art piece. Paul Johnson wants a sculpture made from the melted-down guns that are being gathered by the city. It will be a memorial to victims of street violence.

It seems like an innocent-enough suggestion. But the gun-statue idea--already dubbed "silly" by several city councilmembers--is proof that Phoenix's public-art program today isn't the one that caught the fancies of Newsweek and the New York Times.

In fact, the arts commission's founding philosophy was crafted to avoid the kind of eastern European aesthetic that results in grim memorials and busts of dead guys. In the trade, it's called "plop art"--statues and memorials dropped in city parks or near the front steps of civic buildings.