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Editorial> Bring Great Public Art Beyond the Loop
Chris Bentley reminds Chicago not to ignore its neighborhoods as it embarks on a new cultural plan.
Sculpture by Picasso in Chicago's Daley Plaza, 1967.
Brian Woychuk / Flickr

This year, the Art Institute of Chicago celebrates its “special 100-year relationship” with Pablo Picasso, whose rise to celebrity paralleled Chicago’s own growth from prairieland backwater to a destination for modern art. For Chicago that ascendance came to a head in August of 1967, when Mayor Richard J. Daley unveiled the sculpture Picasso designed for Daley Plaza.

The cubist sculpture was the first major public artwork in downtown Chicago. As the city looks back on Picasso’s work, it serves as a reference point for the current state of public art in Chicago, which is at a critical moment as the city implements a new cultural plan and gears up for a hotly anticipated rails-to-trails project.

Though Chicago’s 1913 Armory Show featured Picasso’s work when he was still relatively unknown in the U.S., the Daley Plaza sculpture came at the height of the artist’s international renown. Designers from the city’s leading architecture firms (among them representatives of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; C.F. Murphy Associates; and Loebl Schlossman & Hackl) wooed the artist, who typically refused commissions, betraying Chicago’s fixation with becoming a “world-class city.”

To their artistic consensus, Mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly replied, “Well I don’t know this Mr. Picasso, but if he’s the best, then let’s get him.” The sculpture was engineered and erected undercover, its structural challenges handily managed by SOM’s Bill Hartmann and a design-build team whose behind-the-scenes cunning embodied the “city that works” attitude of the day.

But Chicago’s “world-class” aspirations should not come at the expense of its neighborhoods. The city’s percent-for-art program tied funding for public art to large public construction projects, which dried up shortly after the ordinance passed in 2007. Though rumblings of a market rebound may change that, we’re not seeing a lot of money for public art.

The city’s cultural plan also calls for an expansion of public art. “The Great Chicago Fire Festival” has been set for 2014 and an international outdoor sculpture exhibition has graced the lakeshore since August. Julie Burros, director of cultural planning at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, said in May that work from those lakefront parks might make their way inland through a neighborhood leasing program, which would be a good start.

At the event where Burros made those remarks—an Art Institute talk on Chicago’s public spaces—it was duly noted that the authenticity of most good public art comes through regardless of the viewer’s appreciation for art history. Though the Picasso statue’s appropriation as a year-round meeting place (and jungle gym) is a good example of that, one needs look no further than grassroots street art for proof.

To really catalyze Chicago’s artists, the city should encourage private developers, community groups, and foundations to integrate art into more projects throughout the city. As in designs for the Bloomingdale Trail, public art in the 21st century is part and parcel with landscape design, architecture, and civic infrastructure. That project may be a proving ground for a new approach to public art in Chicago, just as Picasso’s sculpture was nearly half a century ago.

Chris Bentley