Public art is a multifaceted concept. It encompasses eternal statements cut from stone and placed on public land; it includes ephemeral murals painted on blank walls facing neighborhood streets; it involves sculpture by internationally recognized artists placed in corporate plazas; it represents installations that either reinforce the physical, functional and visual coherence of its surroundings, or highlights its fragmentation; and finally, it integrates aesthetics and function by serving as benches, bridges or sidewalks. Within this broad range of types and intentions, public art appears in a parade of styles, sizes, colors and content. What unifies this montage is the underlying principle that public art publicizes private agendas and places them in the public realm. At the beginning of the 1980s, large works by internationally recognized artists were often commissioned by developers of urban office towers to link the project to a signature piece by a well known artist. By the end of the decade, works were often smaller, the artists were less well-known and attempts were made to connect the art to a larger context. The public art program at the office and retail complex at the southwest corner of 7th and Figueroa, originally called Citicorp Plaza, illustrates this evolution.
Oxford Properties, the initial developer of the project, was required under an agreement with the Community Redevelopment Agency, to allocate one percent of the construction cost to public art.(1) The developer initially planned to commission a 30' tall work of steel and found metal objects from Mark DiSuvero, a carved piece from Walter Dusenberg, and a 20' diameter sculpture constructed of concrete and tile from David Hockney.(2)
In late 1984, Oxford Properties discarded their initial plan and hired Tom Van Sant as an art consultant. He proposed borrowing up to 10 existing art pieces each year and placing them on a temporary basis throughout the plaza area. He also proposed a non-profit corporation be formed to direct the program. However, funds committed under the public art requirement would be depleted in four years because of the salaries paid to the project's three administrators. Van Sant predicted that the non-profit organization would sustain itself by selling artwork displayed at Citicorp Plaza. The staff of the Community Redevelopment Agency analyzed Van Sant's proposal and reported it was "poorly conceived" and exhibited an "utter failure to come to terms with the challenge of the site". The staff strongly recommended that the developer reject Van Sant's plan and develop "a more responsive and distinguished program."(3)
After Prudential Property Company, Inc. became the leading partner in developing the office and retail project, Kathy Lucoff was retained in 1987 as the project's new art consultant. At the time she was hired, artists, writers, critics and art administrators were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with traditional plop art, signature pieces commissioned by corporate clients to promote the status and prestige of their projects. There was a search for new forms, and new artists, as well as a push for collaborative projects, which was understood to mean collaboration between artists and architects. Against this background, as well as reacting to the unsettled history of the art program, the Arts Advisory Committee of the Community Redevelopment Agency requested a meeting with Lucoff before she initiated plans for the development.(4) During her June 8, 1987 meeting with the Committee, Alan Sieroty, the committee chair, recommended that the art have a presence at the corner of Seventh and Figueroa and Adolfo Nodal recommended live programming and/or using downtown artists.(5)
Guided more by the tone of the committee's comments but than by their specifics, Lucoff concluded that the public art component should involve an experience, a sense of discovery, rather than an installation of objects. Since the design for Phase I--a 42 story office tower designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and the plaza and shopping area were completed, it was too late to collaborate with the architects. She saw the potential spaces for public art had a human scale which could frame a series of small, intimate works. But with the spaces already constructed, Lucoff felt she had to attract artists by offering them an opportunity to participate in an unique creative experience. She considered collaborations between artists and novelists but quickly discarded the idea because of the length of the texts that would have resulted. She then conceived of an artist-poet collaboration, which the developer strongly endorsed.(6)
At the October 5, 1987 meeting of the Community Redevelopment Agency's Arts Advisory Committee, Lucoff unveiled her plan for a mix of small and large works, each created through a collaboration between an artist and poet, and all tied together into a "Poet's Walk."(7) The Arts Advisory Committee enthusiastically endorsed the concept and later approved the individual components. However, the committee was critical of the absence of local poets and continued pressing that point during Lucoff's subsequent presentations. She argued that reputable poets were often affiliated with colleges and universities located outside of Southern California.(8) She also pointed out that the number of available poets was further reduced by their incompatibility with the styles and approaches of the artists. Nevertheless, she ultimately matched Robert Mezey from Pomona College with David Gilhooly, which resulted in a two-piece installation.
Lucoff searched for artists who previously incorporated words in their works, had a narrative quality, were temperamentally diverse, were experienced with outdoor materials, and represented a diversity of styles.(9) After compiling a list of about 20 artists, she was advised by Bill Matthews, President of the Poetry Society of America, and James Ragan, Director of the USC Professional Writing Program,(10) in identifying poets whose verse represented diverse styles and points of view yet would fit within the space limitations imposed by the artwork. They also assisted Lucoff in matching poets with artists who were temperamentally and philosophically compatible.
As the project evolved, some artists and poets declined to participate and others initially accepted but subsequently dropped out. Among the artists who declined to participate were Pat Steir, John Baldessari and Lee Friedlander, Alexis Smith and Lita Albuquerque (the latter two were involved in other projects). Other artists initially accepted but later dropped out. Charles Garabedian agreed to collaborate with poet Galway Kinnell in creating a large elliptical ceramic sculpture depicting people and buildings, but the project was never developed beyond a basic concept.(11) Carlos Almaraz, who began developing a mosaic wall mural with poet Garrett Hongo,(12) was unable to complete the project.(13) An attempt was then made to match Hongo with other artists but these plans fell through and Hongo ultimately left.(14) Matched with poet Lucille Clifton,(15) Agnes Denes dropped out after developing preliminary ideas for a sandblasted floor piece in the plaza area.(16) Clifton was later teamed with graphic designer April Greiman and together they created "Walk Earth Talk". Of the initial people invited, George Herms/Charles Simic ("Portals to Poetry") and James Surls/Robert Creeley ("Once There Was a Forest") completed installations. In addition to these two works and the Greiman/Clifton installation, the dedication of Phase I of the Poetsâ Walk in early 1991 included "Corporate Head" by Terry Allen and Phillip Levine, "Natural Instincts" by Joe Fay and Gary Soto, "Pigeons Acquire Philosophy" and "The Public Abandons Philosophy" by David Gilhooly and Robert Mezey, and "Overall" by Lawrence Weiner and Carolyn Kizer.
Phase II was dedicated in early 1995 and consisted of one work, "Puddles" by Peter Alexander with the 15th century poetry of Ikkyu Shonin. Phase III of the Poetsâ Walk was contemplated but never initiated because the high rise office tower that would have funded it was never built.Footnotes:1. Memo from Carol Goldstein and Marc Palley to distribution, re: Oxford Properties Public Art Program, January 7, 1986.
2. Letter from Oxford Properties to Donald Spivack, February 1, 1984.
3. Goldstein, Palley memo, op. cit.
4. Minutes, Arts Advisory Committee, Community Redevelopment Agency, April 6, 1987.
5. Minutes, Arts Advisory Committee, Community Redevelopment Agency, June 8, 1987.
6. Interview of Kathy Lucoff by Michael Several, February 16, 1990.
7. Minutes, Arts Advisory Committee, Community Redevelopment Agency, October 5, 1987.
8. Minutes, Arts Advisory Committee, Community Redevelopment Agency, April 5, 1988, September 8, 1988; see also letter from John Spalding, Director of Planning and Urban Design, Community Redevelopment Agency, to Rolf Kleinhans, the Prudential Development Group, no date.
9. Interview of Kathy Lucoff by Michael Several, February 16, 1990.
10. Letter from James Ragan to Arts Advisory Committee, April 8, 1988.
11. Report, "The Poetry Art Walk For Citicorp Plaza," August 9, 1988.
13. Minutes, Arts Advisory Committee, Community Redevelopment Agency, October 3, 1988.
14. "Report to Project Review committee on the Citicorp Preliminary Art Plan, Phase I, Central Business District Redevelopment Project - Financial Core," by John Tuite, October 24, 1988.
15. Minutes, Arts Advisory Committee, Community Redevelopment Agency, October 10, 1989.
16. Minutes, Arts Advisory Committee, Community Redevelopment Agency, October 3, 1988.