Artists vie for commissions from city, county

Since former Mayor Richard J. Daley first commissioned the Picasso sculpture outside the Civic Center in 1967, public art has become as much a signature of Chicago as the Gothic buildings and deep dish pizza.

But in the Chicago of Mayor Richard M. Daley, public art has become an issue with as many faces as "The Bean" has reflections, with city government taking the lead, Cook County lagging behind, and artists just trying to do their work.

The public art program, established as part of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs in 1978, is responsible for allotting money for public art projects. Committees made up of program representatives, community members, city officials and artists choose designs and artists for new pieces of public art.

"The procedure for artwork commissions is . . . designed to ensure that both the artist and the public art program are clear as to the expectations of the project," said Kimberly Costello, assistant commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

To get a commission, the artist submits a 2-D or 3-D design of the proposed artwork, a sample of the material to be used, a detailed description of the artwork and a budget, according to Costello.

The proposal must be approved by the project advisory panel and the public art committee.

While Chicago has efficient controls on its frequent art projects, Cook County has very little structure.

"There really isn't a set process," said Elizabeth Melas, Cook County's deputy director of capital planning and policy. "Nothing is really written in stone. We have a fixed amount of money in a contract . . . an art allowance."

Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) said the county lacks structure for dealing with public art because it pays little attention to it. He said most of the county's public art is on park district or private property and not controlled by the county.

"Most commissioners aren't even aware of public art unless they are walking past the sculptures downtown," he said.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) said the county would like to do more to enhance the area's artistic heritage.

"Our prior generations have given us wonderful art," he said. "Unfortunately, we haven't built much stuff. Personally, I do believe public art is important and reminding the public about public art that is already here is important."

In Chicago, Gallery 37 teaches art to local youth as part of the job-training program After School Matters. When the new domestic violence courthouse opened at 555 W. Harrison St., the participants of Gallery 37 were asked to complete the public artwork for the building.

Melas said these new projects are important to the county's identity, but others point to the significance of older examples of public art.

"The old Cook County Hospital is the original public art," Quigley said. "Buildings like Cook County tell you where you are. They [have been] telling people where they are for the past 100 years."

Jessie Thymes, program manager for the Chicago Public Arts Group, agreed that public art is important to neighborhood identity and building a sense of community. She said her organization bridges the gap between the artists, who are primarily concerned with aesthetic beauty, and businesses and government officials, who are focused on expenses and profits.

"Artists are not business people per se," Thymes said. "All they want to do is, really do their art. While they're doing that, the administrators at the [Chicago Public Arts Group] handle the contracts and the business for them and make sure that they're insured while they're doing the projects . . . It's kind of like being an agent."

The arts group often works with realtors when they purchase and redevelop property and has been involved in several government sponsored projects. It helped the Chicago Park District improve playgrounds and teach children artistic skills while they create public works through After School Matters.

"There is a certain path that you take when getting to the creation of a piece of public art," Thymes said. "There are different needs. Some may be more interested in having an interesting piece of public art. Some are more interested in the opportunity for their youth to learn a new skill."

Thymes said her organization also tries to find projects that match the skills of their 25 to 30 active artist members. Prospective clients are shown different styles of work and decide the medium they're interested in and whether they want a painted mural or mosaic or a cement sculpture.

While she said the goal is "to produce creative and beautiful pieces of public art that people from around the city can look at and enjoy," the group also participates in restoration projects to preserve older artwork, working with community groups and aldermen to get funding.

"We're involved in the restoration of a mosaic piece on Navy Pier," Thymes said. "A resident noticed that the benches were chipping. We hired another artist to go out and do a restoration on that."

Painter Anne Leuck Feldhaus has designed several public art projects, including the street banner for Bucktown, her home neighborhood, and painting a dog-themed furniture set for "Suite Home Chicago," a project similar to "Cows on Parade," that appeared in 2001.

"I wanted to get my artwork out there," Feldhaus said. "I thought it looked like a great thing to do. It's great exposure for an artist. I even got paid."

Feldhaus earned $2,000 for "Suite Chicago Dogs" but did the Bucktown banner for free as part of a community organization contest.

"I live here, so it's a great opportunity to walk down the street and see my art here," she said, adding that public art has improved her career and she would consider submitting more work in the future.

"Every art fair I do, I have a framed photo of the suite," Feldhaus said. "People walk into my booth and see it and [sometimes] there are people who were there. People mail me pictures of them sitting on it. Mine was one of the first put out there that summer, so it was in all the news clips."

Jim Budish, a renowned sculptor of bronze metal figures whose art is featured all over Cook County and the city of Chicago, also said he enjoys doing public art.

"I have rarely solicited in Cook County [to get my work seen]," Budish said. "Typically, I am approached."

But Budish knows the process is not that easy for some artists.

"Some artists have to go through a vigorous and lengthy submission process, where several hundreds of submissions are presented in a competitive environment."

Budish praised "Cloud Gate," also known as "The Bean," a popular sculpture by Anish Kapoor in Millennium Park.

"I personally think it is spectacular," he said. "It enhances the public space, whether you like it or not. It is absolutely magnificent."

Chicago resident Eric Hodges agreed.

"I think it is really neat," he said. "I am fascinated by it, especially when there isn't any work being done on it and you can go underneath it and look up . . . I very much appreciate public art . . . provided it is tasteful and not too edgy."

Thai Tran, an environment artist who was visiting Chicago, also praised Chicago's public art efforts.

"It is necessary to have public art," Tran said. "As an artist, [Cloud Gate] is probably the most unique thing I have ever seen."