Portland’s back-door deal for public art

Readers of a certain age will recall the comedic short “White Like Me,” which aired on “Saturday Night Live” in 1984. In the five-minute mockumentary, Eddie Murphy poses as a Caucasian businessman going about his day in New York City. When he attempts to buy a newspaper, the white guy behind the counter, noting that there’s no one else in the shop, refuses to accept payment and shoos him away, paper in hand. “Slowly I began to realize,” Murphy observes. “When white people are alone, they give things to each other for free.”

At a bank, a black loan officer expresses incredulity that “Mr. White” wants to borrow $50,000 without collateral, a credit history, or a valid ID. A white banker, noticing this, takes over the transaction. “We don’t have to bother with these formalities, do we, Mr. White?” he says. Taking out a box of cash, the banker adds, “Just take what you want, Mr. White. Pay us back anytime. Or don’t. We don’t care!”

“Tell me,” Mr. White says, laughing as he grabs bundles of bills, “do you know of any other banks like this in this area?”

I know of an institution like this in Portland. It’s called the Public Art Committee, a group of artists and arts administrators that just handed a fellow Portland artist, Aaron T Stephan, $25,000 to design and install a street-lamp sculpture in Woodfords Corner.

The city of Portland is supposedly so strapped for cash that its manager moved this spring to shutter a public health clinic serving destitute AIDS patients and addicts. But Portland’s Public Art Committee is flush with money. It reportedly has a “surplus” in its budget of at least $25,000 that it intends to use to pay Stephan.

Before public money is spent on a public project, it’s customary for the government to put out a call for proposals, so members of the public have an opportunity to bid on the job. But the Public Art Committee (or PAC, for short) doesn’t have to “bother with these formalities.” Back in February, the artist appointed to chair the PAC, Lin Lisberger, and the city staff person assigned to work with the committee, Caitlin Cameron, proposed to simply hire an artist to create the sculpture, with no public call for proposals.

The next month, the PAC unanimously voted to hire Stephan for the job. The committee’s bylaws outline an extensive process for evaluating public-art proposals, which involves the formation of an Artist/Artwork Selection Panel that includes representatives of the neighborhood where the art will be placed. But apparently the PAC can bypass that process and just hire somebody they like if the city manager approves what is essentially a no-bid contract, and that’s exactly what Portland City Manager Jon Jennings did in this case.

What will the sculpture look like? Good question. Nobody really knows.

Stephan was not required to submit a design (or even a preliminary sketch) before he was hired to undertake the project and awarded the money. It may look something like the street-lamp sculptures he’s done in Farmington and Lubbock, Texas, or it may not. When residents of the Woodfords neighborhood saw images of those installations at a public meeting in late March, they were decidedly less impressed than the PAC was with Stephan’s work. “One woman called the artwork creepy,” the Press Herald reported, “another said it was ugly.” Residents will supposedly have an opportunity to provide “feedback” to Stephan at a public meeting or two before the sculpture is installed — but, of course, the artist is under no obligation to take the public’s comments into consideration.

Personally, I really like Stephan’s work. I think a sculpture like the one he did in Farmington — a cluster of street lamps bent in different directions — would be an appropriate installation for the crazy and chaotic Woodfords Corner intersection. And at the risk of sounding too “art school,” I’ll add that Stephan’s transformation of utilitarian objects into artistic forms provides a subversive commentary on the soulless nature of institutions like city government, as well as the artist’s role as one who turns mundane materials into interesting things.

A five-sculpture installment, "Variations," by Portland artist Aaron T Stephans, transforms standard light fixtures and resembles plants growing out of the ground on the campus of Texas Tech in Lubbock Texas. Texas Tech photo.

A five-sculpture installment, “Variations,” by Portland artist Aaron T Stephan, transforms standard light fixtures and resembles plants growing out of the ground on the campus of Texas Tech in Lubbock Texas. Texas Tech photo.

That said, the PAC should not have awarded Stephan a no-bid contract to do this project. It reeks of the type of inside-dealing Murphy lampooned in the “SNL” short, substituting white people for artists who belong to the same elitist “creative economy” clique.

Had Stephan been asked to submit a design in open competition with other artists, he very well may have been awarded the job, but now the public’s aversion to aesthetically challenging artwork is compounded by their aversion to bureaucrats who spend our money with little or no public input. As a result, the process of installing public art at Woodfords Corner is becoming as much of a headache as the intersection itself.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.