At the start of 2017, the Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events announced Chicago’s Year of Public Art (YOPA), in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the famed untitled Picasso sculpture that resides at the foot of the Civic Center. As we reach the halfway mark, it’s clear that this initiative not only serves to honor the seminal work that remains emblematic of the city’s civic arts legacy, but to showcase all that it helped to lay the groundwork for.
Fittingly, an integral part of the initiative aims to perpetuate the tradition of public sculpture. The 50×50 Neighborhood Arts program gave artists the opportunity to propose works to be installed in cooperation with the offices of the city’s Aldermen, with the ambitious aim of adding one new work of public art to each of Chicago’s 50 wards. The yield has included everything from small, kinetic figures―described as “modern gargoyles” by a DCASE spokesman―looming over the intersection of Randolph and Wabash, to the Giacometti-esque Looking Up (made, improbably, from crushed aluminum foil, roasting pans, and baking tins) installed along Lake Shore Drive, to the new murals in the Bronzeville and Pilsen neighborhoods set to be unveiled later this month.
The most noteworthy addition to the city’s public sculpture collection is, arguably, Tony Tasset’s Deer. Towering over a grassy stretch of the recently rehabilitated Riverwalk near Franklin Street, the monumental fiberglass sculpture is as clever as it is gleeful (especially if one comes across it as as a surprise). Viewed from street level, it is impossible to gaze down on the flawlessly rendered doe without thinking of its life-sized compatriots gracing all too many suburban front yards. That Chicago in all its metropolitan glory should be granted its own colossal iteration of this icon of Midwestern kitsch on what amounts to being our own collective front lawn only seems fair.
Of course, YOPA extends beyond the mere addition of new public sculptures. Everything from a stylistic reenactment of performances at the Pekin Theatre with ragtime pianist and MacArthur Fellow Reginald Robinson, to interactive installation and dance workshops with the Synapse Art Weave Tree project, to guided tours of the parks with members of the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology will be taking place through the end of the year as a part of the celebration, and nearly all of it touting free admission.
The initiative has also led to a collaboration between Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s One Summer Chicago, the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, and DCASE to create a Public Art Youth Corps. The participating interns, aged 14-24, are to be matched with various community organizations throughout the city to work on executing public art projects affiliated with YOPA throughout the summer.
With so many new aspects of public arts programming emerging in all corners of the city right now, it can be easy to forget that Chicago has―and has had, for many years―a wide range of public arts programming already in place. From the historic and artistic exhibitions, publicly accessible workspaces, and educational programs offered free of charge at the Cultural Center, to Gallery 37’s youth arts collective, to increased free access to museums, the city has always made sure that cultural resources are accessible to all who pass through, regardless of residence, education, or income.
It is this ethic that has allowed Chicago to bridge the significant divide that all too often exists between working artists and the civic system. One of the finest examples of this played out last week in Grant Park when the SummerDance program (now in its 21st year of offering free professionally led dance classes and live music) was hosted by Mucca Pazza. For the uninitiated, Mucca Pazza consists of―give or take―25 musicians who generally resemble a marching band, without paying much credence to what instruments have business being in marching band. Stylistically, they seem to have wrung the best out of the traditions of the New Orleans second line, European Gypsy bands, and Chicago’s own historic jazz orchestras. Their tendency to favor being out among the crowd over remaining on stage subverts the standard concert format in a way that consumes the audience whole. They also, of course, have their own cheerleaders. Their ragtag appearance and flair for performative antics belies an extremely high degree of musicianship, no doubt the element that has made them a mainstay on Chicago’s underground music scene for a good number of years.
To see this particular group of artist-musicians incorporated into civic programming is to glimpse the all-too-rare intersection of art as it is actually produced in the city, and art as it is recognized by the city. This can only occur when there exists a sense of mutual respect between the two; and therein lies the real purpose of public art: to have the cultural identity of a city formed by the best of its artists, recognized by its civic representatives, and appreciated by its citizenry.
It makes it all the more appropriate then, that on August 8, 50 years to the day, a contemporary restaging of the 1967 dedication ceremony for Chicago’s renowned Picasso sculpture will be held on Daley Plaza. This is a nod not only to the work that fostered this city’s aspiration to become a cultural capital, but an opportunity to express our gratitude to all those who have come together in the last half century to help realize it.
For a complete calendar of events related to the Year of Public Art initiative, visit the Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events’ directory.