The Cost of Public Art in Connecticut: $90,000 for Silhouettes at a Community College

 
Brad Guarino's “Passing Through” consists of fifty steel silhouettes scattered throughout the new Building 600 at  Tunxis Community College in Farmington.

Brad Guarino's “Passing Through” consists of fifty steel silhouettes scattered throughout the new Building 600 at Tunxis Community College in Farmington.

Kate Hartman

Next time you’re driving through Farmington—on your way to the capital city or the Westfarms Mall, perhaps—take a detour to Tunxis Community College and check out the latest addition to your art collection: Brad Guarino’s “Passing Through.”  

Fifty steel silhouettes scale the walls of the new Building 600, peeking around corners, talking beside the elevator and stepping off light fixtures. Like them or loathe them, they’re yours because you chipped in—however fractionally—to pay the artist a whopping $90,000 to create them.

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If you live and pay taxes to the state of Connecticut, you’re an art collector. It’s all part of the state’s Art in Public Spaces program, which has bought public art for new and expanded Connecticut buildings for the last 36 years—to the tune of $14.5 million.
 

SOME EXPENSIVE PROJECTS

Connecticut law currently requires that not less than 1 percent of the cost of construction or renovation of publically accessible state buildings be allocated for the commission or purchase of artwork for that building.

As with most things, good intentions were the genesis of Connecticut’s Art in Public Spaces program. Adopted in 1978, the state was one of 11 jumping on the public-art bandwagon. The program was designed to “provide citizens of Connecticut with an improved public environment by investing in creative works of high quality for public buildings,” according to the state’s Culture and Tourism website.

Today, there are 27 states with similar formal programs to allocate a portion of building costs for art acquisition. Over 300 municipalities across the country have versions of their own—including three in Connecticut.

Since the law was enacted, the Connecticut Office of the Arts (COA) has commissioned or purchased over 400 works in a variety of mediums including sculpture, wall relief, environmental installation, painting and photography. Works appear in 30 towns across the state, forever changing the office buildings, courthouses, state colleges and universities, public schools and municipal buildings.

At best, the process of adding new artwork to the collection is tiring, at worst it’s maddening. Between fluctuating budgets, differing opinions, fabrication setbacks and delays, there can be any number of roadblocks. The person charged with keeping everything on track is Tamara Dimitri, the Art in Public Spaces Program Specialist of COA.

Her job begins the minute a potential state building project surfaces. Pulling from the Art in Public Spaces Artist Registry, she recommends potential good fits, which can be from within the state or around the country. Dimitri does “reserve some small projects for Connecticut artists who have few experiences so they can create their portfolios,” she says, citing Guarino as an example of one such artist.

A site committee composed of building users, the project architect and a panel of arts professionals is appointed to better understand the facility and decide which artist is best suited to the task. The pool is narrowed down to four or five standouts, who are then asked to create a site-specific proposal on a stipend. Based on those presentations, the committee creates another short list, repeating the process until a final decision is made.

According to Dimitri, the right piece of public art for any project “needs to connect and have a dialogue with the space and connect with the community.” Whether it’s a painting, photo, mosaic or sculpture—the artwork has to make sense in the place it’s located in and to the people who utilize it. More importantly, it should force people to notice it.

“Public art is about creating a discourse,” says Stephen Hard, executive director of the Greater New Britain Arts Alliance, who operates the town’s Percent for the Arts program.

“The worst thing is that it will be ignored. You can like or dislike it, but not ignore it.”
 

SILHOUETTES

Brad Guarino’s project at Tunxis was born out of discourse. The silhouettes began with an essay contest in which students were asked to describe their journey to the school. From those responses, students, alumni and faculty were selected to pose for a photography session with the artist. Each participant was given a $250 stipend.

Guarino took photos of his subjects hiking and engaging in similar activities, which were then enlarged, flattened, redrawn and translated into an auto-cad format so they could be laser-cut out of stainless steel. The result is a permanent piece that is directly tied to the school’s population at the time of installation.

The conversation surrounding the project will continue with a website Guarino intends to create. Each student’s essay will be posted, accessible by clicking on their corresponding silhouette, so visitors can have the same connection to the artwork that Guarino has.

As he walks through the cavernous two-story building, Guarino points out each silhouette, calling them by person’s name and remembering their stories. If he saw the students on the street years from now, he would still recognize them—that’s how personal this project has been for him.

He named the piece “Passing Through” for the transitory nature of college. It was largely inspired by A Bend in the River, the history of Tunxis written by former professor Edward Ifkovic. Ifkovic, whose own silhouette is forever frozen on the wall, suggests that community college is “akin to life on the American western frontier. Out West, in the early days of exploration, no one asked about your past . . . you were, quite simply, judged by your present behavior and morality.”

As an adjunct art professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and UConn, Guarino shares the mindset—that college is just one step in a person’s journey. Many of his silhouettes have a backpack or a bag, signifying what we carry with us through our lives.  

Guarino finished the installation in January, the final step in a very long and challenging initial foray into the world of public art. “Passing Through” represents a series of firsts for the artist—the first time working with a new medium, stainless steel (he is typically a painter), and the first time he was commissioned to create a piece of public art.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he says of the process. “It’s frankly been one of the most stressful things I’ve done in my whole life.”

Guarino was selected from the Connecticut Public Arts database to compete for the commission in April 2010, and was awarded it that June. He spent the next three years going back and forth with the college’s selection committee, a process he refers to as “contentious” at times with certain members of the committee “just not getting it.”

Tunxis president Cathryn Addy admits she was initially skeptical of the project. She appreciates Guarino’s willingness to take the suggestions of the committee.

The project as it stands today is very different from the idea he first pitched. In his preliminary design, Guarino wanted to have stainless steel rock climbers scaling the walls of the Building 600 atrium. That plan was quickly nixed for fear that life might literally imitate art. “I didn’t really think that students would be climbing the walls but if they can sleep better at night, that’s okay,” he says.

He went back to the drawing board to address the concerns of the institution. It wasn’t until last May that he took the photos. He made a final proposal to the committee complete with official photographs in early summer, but it wasn’t until Sept. 1 that Guarino was given the official go-ahead. He then enthusiastically jumped into the creation process.

Last-minute issues with the fabricator, insurance and screws that needed to be specially ordered were just a few of the issues that threatened to derail the project. He installed the last figure on Jan. 19. His stress was unquantifiable at times, but now that it’s done he says it’s all been worth it. The collaborative process with the committee resulted in a “much better project for the school.”

“Now that it’s on the wall, I’m very happy with it,” says Addy. “He captured the essence of a community college student body. I love not only the silhouettes but the idea it will be somewhat interactive.”

“When I’ve talked about the difficulties I’ve had in terms of certain members of the committee that just weren’t getting it, a lot of people have said to me, ‘Well, you’re not going to compromise on your ideas right?’” says Guarino. “But public art is different. It’s not all about my idea.”  
 

THE RIGHT QUESTION

It can be a hard pill to swallow for artists who want to stay true to their vision, but it’s one that even well-known public artists have forced down to get a project off the ground.

Celebrated Cornwall artist Tim Prentice, of Bradley International Airport fame, has gone toe-to-toe with site committees. For him, the mere idea of a committee waters down the artistic vision because it has to “please everyone.” When considering a project, site committees will ask themselves, “Are they going to like it?”

“Who are ‘they’?” asks Prentice. “That’s not the right question. The question should be ‘Do I like it?’ When you’re using public money that can be hard, but you can’t know if ‘they’ will like it. You can only know what you like.” And what the artist likes, because as Prentice is unafraid to admit, he has to like the piece to even be willing to sell it.

In the public-art game, there are a lot of moving parts. If even one cog malfunctions, the whole machine can fail, resulting in artwork that doesn’t make an impact—or worse, doesn’t get made at all. Like “Passing Through,” many public artworks have suffered from committee revisions and adjustments.

Prentice hasn’t been immune either, refining his work with the tides of opinion. In the case of his first, and perhaps best-known public art installation in Connecticut, Prentice suffered the worst fate of all, watching it fall into such disrepair that he preferred to take it down than watch it hang in mangled glory.

Prentice exploded onto the state public art scene in 1987 with his 230-foot-long kinetic sculpture, named “Red Zinger” for its vibrant vermilion color. The state paid a pretty penny for the piece—approximately $54,000. (Prentice speculates if it was commissioned today, “Red Zinger” would cost closer to $300,000.) For a quarter of a century, the undulating masterpiece hung above the ticket counters in the airport’s Terminal A, acting as the state’s unofficial greeting committee.

But over the years, the paper-thin aluminum plates took a beating—from bored passengers shooting paperclips at it while they waited for their flight, an unbalanced air conditioning system that warped some sections of the piece, and a construction crew that moved and remounted the piece during airport renovations without the artist’s supervision. Prentice says he repeatedly asked to fix “Red Zinger,” even offering in 2009 to remove the damaged plates and shorten it—to the tune of $10,000.

“It needed maintenance like anything else,” says Prentice—something he believes the state Commission on Culture and Tourism was unwilling to do.

Instead, the piece was taken down two years ago. Prentice is okay with this—the strength of his public art portfolio stands on its own. He has four other airports under his belt, and has pieces hanging in 28 states and as far away as Taiwan, Japan, India, Ireland and Australia.

In the end, he asked himself if he was better off with “Red Zinger” missing from his portfolio or looking bad. The choice was clear. “I’m glad it’s not there looking all screwed up,” he says.
 

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

In the history of the Art in Public Spaces program, some prominent pieces have been met with resistance—there is a thin line between good and bad public art, and often that distinction is in the eye of the beholder.

In 2011, the beholder was state Sen. Paul Doyle (D-Wethersfield) and the line was very clear in his mind—the program was a waste of money in the face of the state’s projected deficit. He introduced a bill to eliminate it. “I was trying to figure out a way save money for the state,” says Doyle. “The bill was immediately very controversial.”

Also representing Rocky Hill, he focused on a pending building project at the Department of Public Health. The Hartford Courant reported that the project was going to cost an estimated $75.9 million, with $493,000 going toward art. Kinetic artist Joseph Pentland had been commissioned to install a 22-by-5-foot rotating cylinder in the courtyard—his first foray into public art.

Doyle questioned the commission because the building is largely restricted and not utilized by the public. He says he was open to the idea of negotiating the law to only restrict 1 percent projects to public buildings but the conversation never got to that point because the arts community “blasted on it” at a public hearing. “I testified in favor of it, but everyone else was against it,” he says. “It became an arts community issue.”

State Sen. Joe Markley (R-Cheshire), a self-proclaimed devotee of the arts, is also critical of the law—not because of the investment in art, but because it doesn’t give the taxpayers a choice. “My bottom line is it should be left in the pockets of the taxpayers,” Markley says of the funds. “Let them spend it as they see fit.” He questions the program’s ability to create art with lasting merit, and says that if the state feels it has a responsibility to improve the artistic taste of the average person, a better way to do that would be through education.

“What I really would object to is the thought, 'let’s take 1 percent of a public construction project for art and then, at the same time, take music teachers out of public schools,’” says Markley. “If there’s any place arts funding will create a new audience, it is by doing it in the schools. I see schools that are super strapped, and the only thing they can do is get rid of arts teachers. That’s a crying shame. That strikes me as a worthy cause for the state to get involved in.”

For his part, Pentland doesn’t believe his project was threatened in any real way by what he terms a “fake controversy” that went away without much fanfare. Ultimately, the bill never went anywhere due to the backlash.

The artist finally began installing his cylinder in January. The piece is comprised of 24 separately operated red balls that have the capability of following any programmed rotation. The plan is to utilize varying formulas to generate different patterns on the sculpture. A touchscreen will allow anyone to change the patterns and learn about how they relate to the research.

Like his predecessors’, Pentland’s process was not without incident, but it had more to do with unforeseen complications than conflict with his site committee. “We were in agreement the entire time,” Pentland says. “The only decision was whether I was going to hang the interior piece off the wall . . . but we both agreed it would be more elegant to have it coming through the wall—to be part of the wall.”

When the ground thaws in late April or early May, Pentland will begin to install the exterior sculpture. It will look similar to its interior relative but will have different colored balls and only follow one repeating pattern. “We discussed early on in the process the juxtaposition of the exterior piece running a single program,” he says. “Then you go into the building and see a different-but-connected idea to the exterior piece.”

For some, like artist Jo Yarrington, the question of good public art versus bad public art is a waste of time.

“I think all art is public art,” says the Fairfield University professor, who’s known for the large-scale translucent photographic images she installs in the windows of buildings. “It actually doesn’t matter whether [the art] is good or bad—without [the Art in Public Spaces program], it wouldn’t happen. Nothing would happen and no one would put something aside unless they were forced to do it. There are a lot of ways to spend the money, not all of them good. We know that in this state and many others.”

In Prentice’s opinion the categories are broader than good and bad. “There’s art and no art,” he explains. “Bad art isn’t art.” For him, the mark of good public art is when it makes an impact on people during the brief time they experience it. “If you’re going to be there for five minutes, then it needs to do its thing in five minutes,” he says.

Artist Danielle Mailer, who has completed three pieces of public art in her career—two in Torrington—calls the medium of public art “a vital part of culture.” “Public art reaches people who don’t go to galleries,” Mailer says. “When the art is good, it can alter or move people. It’s a way people can be introduced to art.”
 

OPPORTUNITIES

With the state’s ongoing desire to build in bigger and better ways, Dimitri says the Art in Public Spaces program receives steady funding. There are currently three projects with open Request for Proposals (RFPs) across the state, totaling approximately $718,000, including projects at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Central Connecticut State University in New Britain and A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford. It will likely be years before the public gets the opportunity to see these big-ticket purchases—additions to their art collection.

So, with the seemingly endless possibilities for controversies in public art, why do artists continue to create and why does the state continue to fund it?

“Because it brings you out of your skin,” suggests Prentice. “If it’s good, the best you can hope for is someone looks up and sees something they haven’t before.”                 
 

The Cost of Public Art in Connecticut: $90,000 for Silhouettes at a Community College

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