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Is public art worth the cost to taxpayers?

Newest public artwork in Sydney, Australia
Newest public artwork in Sydney, Australia
Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Earlier this month, this column talked about the dream of Clover Moore, mayor of Sydney, Australia for a public art program to ensure her city’s reputation as a capital of culture and creativity. She started with the 164-foot tall outline of a cloud made of curved steel plates.

Her latest entry is a 165-foot tall lookalike for a twisted flat noodle, commonly made of eggs and flour, and in this case made of stainless steel.
So far, Australians think these works are a waste of their taxpayer dollars - $9 million to be exact.

But how much is a city’s reputation worth? You might ask Detroit.

Consider the controversial work installed there in the ‘80s. Titled “Monument to Joe Louis” by Robert Graham, the installation took place nearly two decades after the Detroit rebellion of 1967 (said to be the most violent civil disobedience in American history).
The monument, set on a busy intersection in downtown Detroit, was made of a cast bronze 24-foot-long forearm with an ungloved clenched fist thrust through a 24-foot-high pyramid of four steel beams.

Better known as “The Fist,” the sculpture prompted immediate furor. The Detroit Free Press reported that either people saw it as a reminder of urban violence in the city - often referred to a as “Murder Capital of America” – or as a fight against violence. But the upshot is that “The Fist” is now featured on the city’s website as a tourist attraction!

Then there’s the Chicago Picasso, an untitled 50-foot-tall Cubist sculpture by Pablo Picasso, installed in the ‘60s in Daley Plaza. Causing instant derisions, a City Councilman sought an immediate replacement.

Yet it still stands and has become a Chicago landmark, a popular meeting place and a site for public events. It even made the movies, the 80’s movie The Blues Brothers.

The moral of the story? As a general rule, give controversial art a chance - time for second looks, second thoughts. That said, I’m going to presuppose that neither the giant noodle nor the contour of a cloud will ever rise to the iconic level of the Sydney Opera House.