Sunday, September 6, 2009

Gridiron Gauche?

Gridiron Gauche ?
By Tom Wachunas

Before reading any further, if you don’t already know some of my concerns about public art installations in Canton, I suggest going to the archive here and reading the March 18 post, “Downtown Dumping Ground,” as well as the August 15 post, “Desperately Seeking Connections, part 2.”

In his August 23 “Your Voice” piece for The Repository, Robb Hankins, president and CEO of ArtsinStark, the County Arts Council, proposed “The Amazing Football Collection” to be installed in downtown Canton over the course of a decade. The collection would consist of 15 pieces of “jaw-dropping” art with a football theme. The kind of art that will stop people in their tracks and throw them into fits of hyperbolic praise for the Hall of Fame City. The kind of art that proclaims Canton’s proud place in human history as the birthplace of professional football. The kind of art that will draw tourists from far and wide and leave them awe-struck as they spend their money in downtown restaurants and businesses and in the process generate lots of jobs.

In light of all the hype about Canton’s “arts explosion” (largely the result of partnerships between the city of Canton, ArtsinStark, real estate developers, and folks at the Canton Chamber and Special Improvement District), when it rains downtown public art projects, it pours. Or so it would seem, judging from Hankins’ ambitious if not far-fetched proposal.

In envisioning partners for this enterprise, Hankins also included private investors, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the NFL. Clearly, the intention here is to bring in the heavy hitters and ratchet up Canton’s cultural profile to national if not world-class status. But where in this mix of partners is Canton’s most prominent presenter and preserver of visual fine art, the Canton Museum of Art? Therein we have an astonishingly rich resource of experience and knowledge when it comes to discerning and exhibiting truly significant and important works. M.J. Albacete, the museum’s executive director, has told me on several occasions that in the process of witnessing the installation of past public art pieces in downtown Canton, he has never been asked for his input on either a professional or “official” level, and remains out of the loop in considering Hankins’ latest ideas.

Excluding Albacete from artistic endeavors designed to have far-reaching, indelible effects on our community is beyond curious. It’s a shameful and otherwise egregious affront to common sense.

So once again I beat the same drum, now beginning to sound worn and increasingly muted. Who exactly is approving what we see as public art downtown? One man? A committee of business people and politicians? A confederacy of well-meaning amateurs? Beyond an already well-demonstrated fundraising (though not necessarily fund-distributing) expertise, what relevant experience and legitimate arts credentials do they bring to the table? What, specifically, is the operative philosophy driving our public art’s look, placement, and ideological content?

Maybe we should rein in this public art wagon train for a time, and re-assess the terrain. In theory, there’s nothing really tasteless about the idea of using public art projects to enhance awareness of this city’s seminal place in football history. But 15 football artworks in downtown? That, I fear, amounts to overkill of the worst kind, the consequence being a community embarrassment rather than a cultural enhancement. There is real danger here that our desire for artful monuments will mutate into a macabre circus of tchochkes. Come to think of it, based on the current crop of downtown public art works viewed in the aggregate, we seem to be already well along that road.

So perhaps a less-is-more approach needs to be seriously embraced. Why not judiciously spread the wealth, and place spectacular sculptures at, say, just four or five “gateway” entrances to Canton? Or in selected city parks? Or establish such monuments in other designated areas, perhaps re-claiming presently neglected real estate?

There seems to be an ever- growing desire for Canton to receive more national attention to its football history. Why not start with upgrading the HOF annual parade and make it truly worthy of national attention once and for all with floats and balloons comparable to the artistic scale and excellence of those in the Parade of Roses or the Macy’s Parade?

If this community is indeed serious about glorifying football with public art, the least it MUST expect is art that is commanding and noteworthy in its own right. Art that stands on its own as the very best our qualified presenters can offer, and thus deserving of respectful attention from casual viewers and seasoned aficionados alike. Art that doesn’t drop the ball.

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