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Bad or beautiful, power of public sculpture can’t be denied

Never underestimate the power of bad public art to ignite a community debate. See: “Scary Lucy,” the unholy bronze monstrosity of unrelenting horror in Celoron, soon to be decapitated or banished to the depths and replaced by a more faithful tribute to Lucille Ball.

Never underestimate the power of great public art to bring renewed interest to matters of grave political import. See: An anonymous art collective’s surreptitious installation of a stately Edward Snowden bust this week in a Brooklyn park, which was promptly removed by authorities only to be replaced by a hologram of the infamous NSA leaker.

And don’t even think of underestimating the power of absurd public art to serve as an emblem of a midsize city’s cultural ascendency: See “Shark Girl,” Cincinnati artist Casey Riordan Millard’s slightly woebegone sculpture of a girl with a pouting shark head, which is still drawing streams of selfie-seekers to her rocky Canalside perch.

Public art is powerful, is what I’m saying. This should be obvious, but all you have to do is look around the art-starved streetscape of Buffalo to learn that it’s not.

In this landscape, long-devoid of compelling new public art projects, the events of the last week both locally and in New York City demonstrate something that should already have been abundantly clear: There is a huge, hitherto-underappreciated and underexploited desire for public art projects that reflect the pride and predilections of the community.

Whether those projects honor hometown legends or international causes célèbres or merely provide a few moments of head-scratching contemplation in the busy lives of citizens, it could not be clearer that art – at least the kind outside the walls of galleries and museums – is far more popular than is generally acknowledged in flyover territories.

In Buffalo, where attendance at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery has been declining precipitously since the early 1990s as admission charges and other factors keep audiences away, this qualifies as a big deal.

That’s why it’s been so heartening to witness the blossoming partnership among the Albright-Knox, Erie County and the City of Buffalo, who have put their modest resources together to launch a pilot program with the potential to sate the region’s apparently bottomless appetite for public art.

Since its launch more than a year ago, this partnership has already resulted in several promising projects: a community-painted mural overseen by Hallwalls co-founder Charles Clough at the Hamburg Public Library; a series of popular if somewhat condescending billboards bearing the message “You are beautiful”; a temporary mural made of painters’ tape on the side of the Central Library; and, of course, “Shark Girl,” the most talked-about public art project in Buffalo since Billie Lawless’ kitsch-tastic “Green Lightning” came tumbling down in 1984.

Judging only by the value of public sculpture as a conversation-starter – not to suggest that all those resulting conversations are particularly deep – the Lucille Ball sculpture fiasco in Celoron has demonstrated that even atrocious art can be better than no art at all.

So starved is the landscape for public art in Western New York that I’ve come to believe, to the inevitable chagrin of the old-guard art world for whom “public” remains a dirty word, in a relatively low bar for entry. The question I always ask: “Is this sculpture/installation/indefinable art piece better than the slab of cracked concrete or patch of brown grass that was there before it arose?” And the answer is almost invariably yes, if only because our cityscape remains so soul-crushingly devoid of visual personality from any time in the past half-century. (The standards for new architecture, because of its expense and permanence, must be far higher.)

Naturally, we should avoid filling our city with kitsch and always push for the highest possible quality. And that’s where the Albright-Knox’s program, spearheaded by curator Aaron Ott, comes in. Thanks to that project and Ott’s involvement, which would never allow something like the “Scary Lucy” debacle to occur here, we’re likely to see an uptick not only in the quantity of worthwhile projects, but also in quality.

Great cities and regions make investments in public art commensurate with their ambition. The power of such art, so evident in the events of the past week, is undeniable. In Buffalo, we’re still getting little tastes of the huge potential of public art as a nexus for political action, civic pride and aesthetic stimulation. Our appetites have clearly been whetted. We’re ready for the main course.


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