Thursday, May 8, 2008

Sculpture at center of age old adage: beauty is in the eye of the beholder

School board member blasts public funding for art

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
— Eighty-year-old Manhattan-based artist Sam Wiener says he makes “no bones” about calling his sculpture “totally abstract.”
School board member Richard Abbatiello prefers to call it “$36,000 of hanging scrap metal.”
Wiener’s sculpture was selected by a jury at Bishop Woods School to hang from the lobby of their soon-to-be built school on Quinnipiac Avenue, part of a public art program mandating 1 percent of the city construction costs be set aside for site-specific art. Wiener’s sculpture, titled “Fall,” is a free-form tangle of red rectangles, designed to hang in the entrance to the school. According to Wiener, the work is “suggestive of cellular growth, as in trees.”
“To tell you the honest truth, I didn’t think they would buy it. ... It sounded like they wanted something much more representational,” Wiener said.
While the piece passed muster before the school jury, the Board of Education’s Administration and Finance Committee has tabled funding for the project, which comes from taxpayers, criticizing both the aesthetics of the sculpture and the jury’s selection of an out-of-town artist.
“New Haven has no artist who can do this? Connecticut has no artist who can do this?” said Abbatiello. “I can throw paperclips in a basket and have the same effect. ... I think that’s a terrible piece of artwork. I’ve never seen red trees hanging.”
Reached at his Manhattan studio, Wiener said it “sounds like they are revisiting the case. That’s OK with me.”
“Art is to be experienced rather than understood,” he said.
Wiener’s proposal won over a hanging maple bookcase incorporating Morse code and video cameras, and a glass mosaic of the night sky, said Barbara Lamb, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the program.
“I think part of what was valued is it was not so complicated,” Lamb said. Also, “Sam Wiener is very renowned in the world of sculpture and public art,” she said. “Sam was much more open-minded about his willingness to change the shape, change the manner of the artwork itself.
“People have very strong feelings about art. One of the basic premises about art is to create dialogue. You might view a piece of artwork as ugly, I might see it as beautiful,” said Lamb.
Wiener was born in Louisiana, but lived in Guilford and Fairfield County for decades, recently moving to Manhattan following a divorce. “I have been a Connecticut artist for many years,” he said.
Other applicants were from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Throughout the history of the Percent for Art program, selection has been limited to in-state artists, said Lamb. But, “with the proximity of New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, it’s a sin to limit ourselves to just Connecticut,” she said.
“What is the motivation for doing this?” questioned Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark, D-7, former executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, which once administered the program. “To give jobs to local artists or to get the best art? The people behind the development of a Percent for Art law are doing it to get the best art, not to make jobs for people,” she said.
“Just because you don’t like what the art is, you can’t come in and say, ‘I don’t like the art, get rid of it,’” she said.
That’s not to say it hasn’t happened before.
In one of the most infamous public art sagas, Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” was removed from the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan after years of public outcry.
“People hated it,” Clark recalled. “It kind of cut the plaza in half. It was not very user friendly. It made people enraged. The city finally tore it down.”
New Haven was the first municipality statewide to establish a Percent for Art program in 1981, but the first artwork was not commissioned until 1989 (Eileen Doktorski’s “To Kiss the Earth” sculpture in East Shore Park), Lamb said.
Construction halted during dim economic times in the early 1990s and Percent for Art stalled, but when the $1.5 billion citywide school construction initiative kicked off in the late ’90s, Percent for Art suddenly became a “major, major program,” Clark said.
Since then, more than $1 million has been spent on public art, with the bulk going toward school-based projects.
While magnet schools are primarily state funded and do not fall under Percent for Art, 24 city schools already have Percent for Art pieces, with three more projects planned for Roberto Clemente School, East Rock School and Hill Central School, totaling $150,000.
“It was just the best thing for artists, and the schools to have this happen,” said Clark.
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or

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