Unless you get mugged or need a green card, you may never get to see some of Chicago's most intriguing public artwork.
The public artwork in the renovated areas of Midway Airport might help ease the frustration of flying, but few people know that Todd Slaughter’s hanging sculpture The Body of Lake Michigan (1999–2002) is more than just decoration—it’s required by law to be there. The 1978 Percent-for-Art ordinance, implemented by the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art Program (PAP), dictates that 1.33 percent of the construction or renovation budget for all public buildings be used to commission works of art. Many of these “public buildings” include libraries and city facilities, but they also include places where you wouldn’t expect to see art installations: police stations, fire stations and other buildings that promote safety and enforce the law. Since 1978, more than 30 works of art have been installed in such locations.
PAP director Elizabeth “Lee” Kelley says Chicago’s Percent-for-Art ordinance was the second in the nation (after Philadelphia’s) to take effect in a major city. Artists from all over the world may apply to participate, but neither students, children nor dead artists are eligible. And Percent-for-Art works must be “installed in an area of total public access,” which means most police stations’ pieces are in the lobby or outside the building. So for better or worse, prisoners don’t get to debate the merits of Minimalism versus postmodernism.
Percent-for-Art budgets may seem generous—Kelley says the PAP is often allocated more than $100,000 per police station—but she notes the money must cover the artwork’s materials, fabrication and installation as well as the artist’s stipend. Funds for maintenance are limited: According to Kelley, the PAP receives $150,000 a year from the city to maintain more than 700 works of art—and that $150,000 includes the full-time collection manager’s salary.
Funding isn’t the only challenge. Most new police stations have glass walls, which leave artists with few places to hang their site-specific works. Some artists have solved the problem by incorporating their projects directly into the facade: Cheonae Kim’s untitled 2002 installation at the 16th District police station (5151 N Milwaukee Ave) scatters blocks of vivid color over almost 2,300 square feet of the building’s front wall. Others make innovative use of the stations’ interior space: The brightly colored, disparate neon tubes scattered over the ceiling in Stephen Antonakos’s Neon for the 14th District Police Station (2150 N California Ave) have cast a bodacious glow over the lobby since 1986. At the 10th District police station (3315 W Ogden Ave), Kymberli Johnson’s E Pluribus Unum (2004–2005) includes the lobby’s entire white terrazzo floor, which is embedded with ribbons and squiggles of blue; Johnson adapted these forms from the African and South American cultures predominant in the Lawndale neighborhood.
The city’s official Public Art Guide suggests these projects comfort both stressed-out employees and the people seeking their help. “People call [the 14th] the ‘disco district’ because of these lights,” says Officer Miguel Rivera, who adds, “You get used to it.” Although the lights in Antonakos’s neon installation have to be replaced frequently, Rivera says the art doesn’t interfere with police work “and it makes this place unique.”
The federal government also recognizes that art creates a welcoming environment (or prevents bureaucracy-induced hysteria). The feds’ General Services Administration (GSA) Art-in-Architecture Program—which brought us Alexander Calder’s Flamingo and Claes Oldenburg’s Batcolumn—operates like Chicago’s Percent-for-Art ordinance, although it devotes only 0.5 percent of construction budgets to public art. You can see the GSA’s most recent projects at the revamped U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building (101 W Congress Pkwy)—if you have an appointment or attend the city’s South Side Public Art Tour. Due to security concerns, the building’s two public artworks aren’t really “public.” But the next time you apply for a green card, don’t miss Arturo Herrera’s Night Before Last/Chicago (2006), the lobby’s large-scale, abstract painting in soothing blue, which evokes street art and popular culture. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s sculpture La Tormenta (2006, pictured right) hangs from the ceiling in a waiting area nearby; it comprises two 1,200-pound, titanium alloy–covered fiberglass “clouds” that model a storm over Lake Michigan. “[Manglano-Ovalle] has often used weather as a metaphor for immigration,” observes GSA fine-arts specialist Michael Finn.
Considering Manglano-Ovalle regularly presents his work at institutions such as the Art Institute and Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim, this sculpture—which cost approximately $160,000—is a steal; Finn estimates it’s now worth at least $500,000. Finn often hears people complain that art is a “waste of taxpayers’ money,” but he reasons, “Our program probably has the greatest amount of assets for what we spend” when compared with other federal agencies. Suck it, Defense Department!
Of course, some public artworks are more than eye candy; many tell a moving story. At Chicago Police Department headquarters (3510 S Michigan Ave), Mike Baur created an 11-foot-high pedestal in 2007 for Haymarket Monument, John Gelert’s 1889 memorial to the eight police officers killed in Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Riot. Gelert’s sculpture depicts an officer raising his hand in warning; Baur’s pedestal features eight columns that represent the dead policemen. Outside the 911 Emergency Communications Center (1411 W Madison St), Nancy Dwyer’s 1997 sculpture 911 Oasis (pictured left) spells out NO MAN IS AN ISLAND ENTIRE OF ITSELF—a quotation from a 1624 poem by John Donne—in 18-inch-high granite letters. The phrase is meant to reflect employees’ commitment to the community and provide a pleasant ambience at lunchtime.
Aside from busting vandals who love to tag certain pieces in the Public Art Collection—Richard Serra’s Reading Cones (1988) in Grant Park and Henry Bacon’s Illinois Centennial Monument (1918) in Logan Square are frequent targets—the long arm of the law reaches public art in unexpected ways. Artists cannot participate in the PAP unless they have paid off all their parking tickets, warns collection manager Debra Purden. Kelley also notes that every artwork commissioned by the CTA’s Arts in Transit program must be vetted by a CPD task force to ensure none of its imagery refers to a Chicago gang. And any people represented in public artworks must not have criminal records—a rule that caused headaches when the PAP hired Mike Mandel to do two photographic tile murals at Chicago Lawn’s 8th District police station (3420 W 63rd St) on the South Side.
“[It was] a truly community-based work,” Kelley recalls. Mandel “went driving around asking people if he could take their photograph and did a lot of architectural shots of local storefronts in [languages] from Spanish to Arabic.” But when the PAP asked the police department to run a background check on all the subjects—because “you don’t want to immortalize someone with an eight-foot [portrait]” if he or she is the neighborhood thief—one man turned out to have “a rap sheet 17 pages long,” Kelley says with a groan. Fortunately, Mandel was able to substitute a photograph of another man in a White Sox jersey. When the Sox won the World Series soon after Mandel’s murals were installed, “The police at this station were beside themselves [with joy],” Kelley recalls.
The PAP is currently reviewing applications for projects at the 9th District police station (3120 S Halsted St) under construction in Bridgeport. We don’t recommend proposing a sculpture of a doughnut.