The first time I realized there could be controversy in connection with public art was when I innocently agreed to be president of the Spearfish Area Council for the Arts and Humanities 20 or so years ago. I had been involved with SACAH only a short time and didn't know the organization was embroiled in a lawsuit about a sculpture. Since then I've heard of public controversy about statues in several other towns, most recently Sturgis. I've come to realize that whether the public is paying for public art or not, the public has an opinion about what they want to see on their streets or in their parks.
Oddly enough, two of the controversial works of art involved fish, including the one in which I became inadvertently involved. A group of citizens decided to enhance Spearfish by raising money to commission a sculpture and after they had pledges of several thousand dollars, they realized they could get a matching grant through the National Endowment for the Arts to make an even bigger prize.
The trouble was, to do that they needed to work through the local arts council and to open up the contest to sculptors nationwide. SACAH agreed to cooperate with the citizens group and sent out invitations to submit a proposed statue to artists around the country. I don't know who the judges were, but the winning artist was a fellow from Ohio who proposed a sort of abstract sculpture called "The Hungry Fish."
When they saw what he had in mind, quite a few people hated it and refused to have it in their park. The citizens committee wrote a letter to the Ohio artist informing him that he had been deselected. He didn't sue them, he sued SACAH, which had been totally uninvolved in either the selection process or the rejection. As I recall, it took a couple of years and $2,000 to settle the suit. We all learned a lot, including that public art causes public controversy more often than not.
In 1995 a sculpture titled "Rapid Trout" was put in Founder's Park in Rapid City. Since it was partly funded by the Cement Plant, it had to be made of concrete and the commission was given to a professor at the University of South Dakota. The sculpture consisted of huge slabs with the fish head carved on one piece, the torso and tail on others. There have been a lot of jokes about the fish but I guess people learned to live with it and perhaps even appreciate it by now. Or maybe they just don't pay much attention to it any more.
The greatest controversy generated about public art may be the sort that Sturgis is now experiencing. Two of the 14 sculptures recently installed on Main Street and elsewhere for the Sturgis Sculpture Walk are unclothed human forms, that is to say, nudes. Some people have protested that these are unfit for children to see. This is reminiscent of what Sioux Falls went through back in 1971. That year a wealthy philanthropist named Thomas Fawick donated to the city a full size replica of Michelangelo's "David". The original has been on display in Florence, Italy for 500 years but some Sioux Falls people felt it was "in bad taste and would have a bad effect on the moral values of citizens."
The statue was placed in a park named for the donor but facing away from traffic. Trees were planted to screen it from the street. Later, when the park was being renovated, the statue languished in storage for several years and then was replaced in the park in a more open location. The Sioux Falls website now brags about it.
It's not surprising that public art causes public argument. Art helps us define who we are and what we value. That isn't always easy to agree on, even in small towns where we might think everybody sees everything the same way we do. Actually, they don't.
Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at email@example.com.