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9 of Buffalo's most controversial public art projects

This week, renderings for a planned neon sign featuring the likeness of Buffalo-born musician Rick James were released.

This set off a minor, short-lived controversy over the appropriateness of honoring James, who was convicted of assault in the early 1990s after a pair of violent incidents with women. After considering James' conviction, the authors of the concept announced Thursday that they were scrapping the plan.

This is far from the first controversy to swirl around a proposed (or actual) work of art in Western New York. The region has a history of  debates over public art installations and sculptures, which range from the dancing genitalia of Billy Lawless' "Green Lightning" to the correction of a longstanding slight to Michelangelo in the 2009.

A look back at a few art controversies from Buffalo's past:

The original inscription of a bronze replica of Michelangelo's "David" in Delaware Park, left, was covered over in 2009 with a corrected plaque after decades of debate. (Buffalo News file photos)

From 'Michael Angelo' to Michelangelo

For many years, the plaque on the replica of Michelangelo's David was misspelled as "Michael Angelo" and his birth year was incorrect. While this rates as a low-grade controversy in the pantheon of Buffalo public art dust-ups, it's a great story about one Buffalo teacher's crusade to honor the Italian Renaissance master so long misrepresented in the City of Good Neighbors.

Barbara Canazzi, then a teacher at School 37, launched a fundraising campaign to replace the plaque in the early 1970s. She turned the campaign into a school project for one of her summer classes, finally raising more than $700 to fund a new 24-by-36-inch bronze plaque.

Though that plaque was stolen shortly after it was installed, the Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York succeeded in having a new plaque bearing the correct name and birth year installed in 2009.

A chilling representation of Lucille Ball, left, was replaced by a more faithful likeness in 2016. (Buffalo News file photos)

Goodbye 'Scary Lucy,' hello 'Lovely Lucy'

Few Western New York art stories have gained as much international attention as the controversy that erupted in 2015 over a terrifying sculpture honoring comedian Lucille Ball in the tiny lakeside town of Celoron.

The piece, which inspired countless nightmares, fits of laughter and one memorable "Saturday Night Live" sketch, was the work of Jamestown-area sculptor Dave Poulin. He admitted that the appalling unlikeness of Ball wasn't his best work, and eventually gave up sculpting and donated his equipment to charity as a result.

It was later moved to a platform of shame in Lucille Ball Memorial Park near a shed, and replaced with a new and more faithful likeness by Syracuse-based sculptor Carolyn Palmer.

Buffalo sculptor Billie Lawless poses with a model of his sculpture "Green Lightning," the most controversial piece of public art in Buffalo history, in 1984. (Buffalo News file photo)

'Lightning' rod

No public artwork in Buffalo history has caused as much consternation as Billie Lawless' electrified sculpture "Green Lightning." It stood for just five days in 1984 along the Elm-Oak arterial before Buffalo Mayor James Griffin ordered its removal.

The most offensive element, a collection of neon penises, was reportedly obscured by the artist when he presented his model for the piece, one version of which (unlike the one pictured here) did not contain that crucial element.

"He had fooled city officials, the jury found, with a model of his work that did not show its main feature – a series of clearly identifiable neon phallic figures that became animated when electrified," a Buffalo News editorial from 1992 stated.

The sculpture currently sits in a warehouse outside Cleveland. There has been talk in the last few years about bringing the piece back and installing it in a less prominent location, but no solid plans have yet emerged.

Larry Griffis' sculpture "Spirit of Womanhood" was the focus of a major controversy in the early 1960s. (Buffalo News file photos)

The skinny on 'Spirit of Womanhood'

When it comes to sculptures of women, Buffalo falls short.

One exception is Larry Griffis' skinny "Spirit of Womanhood," which stands along the Scajaquada Expressway holding a circular ring aloft like some sort of religious offering.

While most commuters who catch a glimpse of the piece while cruising by at 30 miles per hour find it innocuous today, its commission and installation in the 1960s was controversial.

As former Buffalo News reporter Michael Beebe explained in a 1991 profile of Griffis, the commission of the sculpture and its especially svelte form spurred "one of the largest letter-writing controversies in local newspaper history."

"The battle was on," Beebe wrote. "The News ran a small picture of the 'Womanhood' model that made her look even skinnier. A reviewer suggested Griffis might not appreciate the female form, because his sculpture seemed to lack breasts."

Despite the poor reception of "Spirit of Womanhood," Griffis successfully installed another sculpture, "Birds Excited Into Flight," which caused  another controversy and still stands on Bidwell Avenue to the chagrin of many Buffalo art lovers.

Concerned citizens announced their plans for a project to replace the Martin Luther King bust statue at Buffalo's Martin Luther King Jr. Park with an alternative statue that matches more the likeness of the fallen legend. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

An African-American everyman

One of the age-old disputes in public debates over public art is the difference between representation and abstraction.

Though John Woodrow Wilson's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in Buffalo's Martin Luther King Jr. Park is not abstract in the normal sense, it was not meant to faithfully re-create King's facial features.

That, as was explained during its controversial installation in 1983, was so that young black men and others from across the community could see themselves in Wilson's work, and thus identify with King's legacy.

The Labatt Blue six-pack painted over these grain elevators caused a stir. (John Hickey/News file photo)

That concept has long offended some black Buffalonians. One of them, community activist Samuel A. Herbert, recently launched an effort to have the sculpture removed, melted down and replaced with a new and more faithful likeness of King.

Six-pack snark attack

The boundaries between art, advertising and outright kitsch were put to the test in 2014, when the owner of a once-dilapidated grain elevator along the Buffalo River decorated it like a six-pack of Labatt Blue cans.

The move struck many preservationists and local culture vultures as an affront to the gritty beauty and authenticity of Buffalo's post-industrial landscape.

Some of them started a petition to remove the advertisement. That, in turn, raised the ire of people who supported the marketing strategy and, of course, fans of the Canadian pilsner.

The cans still stand at RiverWorks, serving as a bright blue beacon amid a dusty landscape of crumbling concrete.

Shark Girl – a public art sculpture at Canalside – stands out in a Huffington Post list. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Art, politics and 'Shark Girl'

Throughout Buffalo's recent history, public art has often served as a punching bag for conservative politicians who bemoan the expenditure of public money on what they see as frivolous pursuits.

And although Casey Riordan Millard's "Shark Girl" sculpture has become the most talked about public art project since "Green Lightning" and certainly the most popular in recent memory, its installation was met with criticism.

Soon after the piece was unveiled in 2014, in one of the more absurdist press conferences ever held, Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy called it "a terrific waste of taxpayer money."

Fortunately for "Shark Girl" lovers, the Albright-Knox and Erie County, who funded the project's curation and installation, were a step ahead of that criticism: Public money for the nascent collaboration between the gallery and the county went only to curator Aaron Ott's salary, while the Albright-Knox paid for the piece.

Vandals used red paint on the Christopher Columbus statue in 2017. (Photo provided by Buffalo Police)

A complicated legacy

Sometimes, controversies over public art emerge decades after their installation.

Take Christopher Columbus. A renewed national push to reconsider the explorer's legacy and how it is honored reached Buffalo last year, when Buffalo's tribute to the sculpture on the West Side was splashed with red paint and scrawled with the words "genocide" and "rape."

The debate over removing the sculpture prompted a widely circulated petition and many letters to the editor. The sculpture still stands, but the controversy – about whether a person guilty of acts both despicable and honorable should hold a place of honor in a progressive society – rages on.

"We do not live in 15th century Spain," said one person during a debate over the statue last year in the Buffalo Common Council chambers in City Hall. "We live in 21st century America."

Black, white and gray at UB

In 2015, University at Buffalo student Ashley Powell put signs reading "White Only" and "Black Only" outside various rooms on the UB campus. Her project, part of an art class, earned immediate condemnation from some at the school (and from this reporter).

But others defended Powell's project on the grounds of artistic freedom, arguing that it made a powerful statement about institutional racism and the continuing trauma black Americans endure in their lives.

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