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Challenging the ordinary

Public art at the University should be suited to its location to have the maximum impact

Public art is meant to bring artwork into the lives of those who would not normally take time to go to a museum. For this reason, the Committee on Public Art chose to place the sculpture “Tripes” by Alexander Calder in front of Peabody Hall in Central Grounds. The setting and the minor controversy about photography of the piece started a conversation about the artwork around Grounds, and that is exactly what those responsible for bringing the sculpture to Grounds hoped for. In challenging the ordinary and the everyday, Calder’s artwork started a new dialogue at the University.

Vice Provost for the Arts Beth Turner called public art “a dialogue and a process.” Turner called the sculpture “ideal for an entry point to public art,” because as an abstract piece, it allows for many different voices and reflections, changing the way students encounter the space around it. The sculpture certainly created a dialogue on Grounds, but it may not be the most beneficial to the University community.

This is the first piece of artwork by a major artist brought in by the Committee and therefore it sets the tone for how future endeavors interact with their surroundings. University Landscape Architect Mary Hughes said two locations were proposed to the Committee: in the “Arts Quad” between the newly completed Architecture School and Culbreth Theater, and its current location in front of Peabody Hall. She said the Committee chose the Central Grounds location to share Calder’s work with those who do not already seek out art in their everyday lives. “It catches a large cross section of the University and there is potential for everyone to see it,” Hughes noted.

Hughes also said the Committee was aware of how the sculpture would interact with the neo-classical architecture around it and considered the startling contrast a benefit to the location. Though the sculpture certainly is a startling sight on Central Grounds, its contrast to the rest of Mr. Jefferson’s University also can detract from public’s perception of the piece. Because passersby are not prepared to be confronted with such a modern work, their interaction with it may be limited to confusion and rejection of the unfamiliar, instead of the creative challenge and engagement the Committee desired.

Another problem with the sculpture was the controversial photo policy initially in place. Turner said “the clause about photography was not fully vetted” and expressed regret that it was unclear at first that personal photographs would be allowed. That this oversight was quickly corrected speaks well for future public artworks at the University, and Turner said if nothing else, the controversy got people talking about art. The photo controversy initially brought negative attention on the piece, however, and therefore damaged the perception of public art at the University.

If everyone viewing a piece of public art rejects it outright because it seems out of place or too controversial, the perception of public art will suffer. If those walking by, however, can move beyond the initial shock to interact with the artwork, public art will impact their lives for the better. The Committee should carefully evaluate not only the next piece of public art it brings to the University, but also the location and how that affects the impact the work will have.

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