The irony is unavoidable, and anyway, it’s appropriate: only in Chicago could a so-called ‘Public Art Crisis’ arise just three months into what has been deemed the Year of Public Art. It doesn’t say much if we simultaneously celebrate and allow to slip away the works that have helped make this city the cultural destination it is.
It was Blair Kamin, veteran architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune, who first sounded the alarm back in early February with regards to the removal of Alexander Calder’s seminal work Universe from the lobby of Willis Tower, after it failed to appear in renderings of a radical redesign slated for the space. A month later, Preservation Chicago announced their annual “7 Most Endangered Sites” list, heading it off with Chicago’s 20th Century Public Sculpture, with an eye specifically towards Jean Dubuffet’s “Monument with Standing Beast,” due to its installation on the plaza of the Thompson Center, a building with an undetermined fate. As March drew to a close, Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, during a conversation with Tony Sarabia on WBEZ’s Morning Shift, warned that credible sources have identified the likelihood that the more well-known of Calder’s Chicago installations, the Flamingo that graces Federal Plaza, is at risk for sale and removal (this alongside the fact that the post office just behind the sculpture is reportedly threatened with demolition, which would mark the first instance of a Mies van der Rohe-designed masterwork being torn down in Chicago, a wholly separate and comparably disturbing issue in and of itself).
I have no desire to be an alarmist here; frankly I’ve been questioning how quickly the situation at hand has been deemed a “crisis.” Though I’ll concede the reality is pretty grim. At last report, Universe was being packed up, with its full removal being estimated complete no later than April 6. As for Flamingo and Monument With Standing Beast, time will tell.
It is vital to remember that the sale and removal of works of public art from the public realm is tied to a much larger issue. These works are threatened because they are viewed as incidental to the structures in whose proximity they are situated, making this no more than the latest chapter in the long and patently bleak history of architectural preservation efforts in this city. The fight to save these works–and this being Chicago, let me tell you, there will be a fight–is not a new one. Hardly.
Luckily, Chicago’s politicians–chiefly, Mayor Rahm Emanuel–value public art, or so their track record and the $1.5 million investment in artist-led community projects in 2017 certainly suggests. We can hope for, and voice our desire for, their support in keeping these works in the public realm. Preservation Chicago’s solution involves calling for the instatement of a special landmark district to protect public art; a fine idea, but a long shot if there ever was one. Nevertheless, it’s a start.
For any interested parties, my personal advice to those who are new to the preservation movement is as follows: stay vigilant, fight like hell, and get used to disappointment.