Balancing Act: The Creative Tension Between Politics and Public Art

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A rendering of Creek Lines looking South.

Courtesy / Bridge Projects

A rendering of Creek Lines looking South.

The politics of public art is never easy. Elected officials are charged with responsibly allocating the percentage of capital improvement projects dedicated to public art, while few, if any, have any curatorial expertise. Adding to that contradiction, some politicians are blind to the value of such investment, while others are oblivious to their lack of expertise.

That’s why, ideally, there is a process put in place to substitute transparency for cronyism, and limit the influence of politics on the selection of artists and the trust invested in their work.

Still, politics inevitably intrude, introducing more heat than light. Such was the case at last week’s meeting of the Bexar County Commissioners Courts and its consideration of the Creek Lines proposal by San Antonio visual artists Stuart Allen and Cade Bradshaw of the Bridge Projects collaborative.

The artists proposed using 30 slender and undulating steel poles to symbolize the city’s most historic creek path. Each pole would be assigned a decade of the city’s 300-year history for the passerby to pause and consider. The minimalist, understated design is a refreshing counterpoint to the popular assumption that public art should be grand in scale and show-stopping in dramatic impact.

San Pedro Creek itself is a modest, meandering waterway, easily overwhelmed in the wrong hands.

Almost everything we publish on public art in San Antonio inevitably draws a comment from a reader yearning for work similar to British artist Anish Kapoor’s $27 million Cloud Gate in Millenium Park in Chicago. That work along the shores of a Great Lake is iconic, no doubt, but any effort to imitate it here will always fall short.

Along those lines, I disagree with Commissioner Tommy Calvert, who told the artists, “You put in a lot of good work. We want to support the artist economy … but I think there was vision for this to be visible from the highway.”

That’s a false measure.

We should not be designing public art to be experienced at 60 mph on an elevated expressway. Drivers need to pay attention to the vehicles around them, not their cellphone screens or public artwork rising in the distance. Creek Lines, appropriately, is designed to be encountered by the pedestrian at street level.

A rendering of Creek Lines looking North.

Courtesy / Bridge Projects

A rendering of Creek Lines looking North.

Its scale is right, and while renderings are no substitute for the finished work in place, I can imagine dancers from Ballet San Antonio performing an original work around the steel sculpture, humans and sculpture becoming one.

The commissioners, in my view, hold a gem in their hands, but each is influenced, understandably, by past failure, thus leading to distrust in a process and outcome that deserves their trust. As noted in a Tuesday article by reporter Jackie Wang, after the presentation and much conversation, commissioners ultimately delayed voting on the Plaza de Fundación’s new centerpiece that is intended to replace the scrapped Plethora sculpture that was canceled due to cost overruns.

The essence of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, an ambitious 2.2-mile linear park through the historic western reaches of downtown San Antonio, is renewed life for the creekway and its role in the story of the city’s origins. The project is the work of Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority, and the City of San Antonio. Crews are now working on the second segment of phase one of a four-phase project that starts at Interstate 35 and the flood tunnel inlet at Santa Rosa Street and will end at the confluence of the Alazán and Apache creeks at I-35 to the south.

The site plan of Creek Lines.

Courtesy / Bridge Projects

The site plan of Creek Lines.

To the credit of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Commissioner Paul Elizondo, in particular, who was born along San Pedro Creek and died in December, few cities would undertake such a challenging task of restoring a creekway through the concrete and complexity of a modern downtown.

The quality of the public art, like the visitor learning experience, the landscape architecture, and the pedestrian amenities, is critical to the outcome.

The first effort came in November 2016, when the County commissioned Barcelona-based artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada to produce Plethora, a $735,000, 60-foot tall aluminum mask of indistinguishable ethnic origin. It could have been Toltec or Inuit. Miscalculations led to the project ballooning to $1.5 million before commissioners smartly pulled the plug.

A new round of consideration was launched last year with an August deadline for interested artists. The San Antonio River Authority led a professional process with a reduced budget of $400,000 for a work that would reflect the cultural, historical, and environmental significance of San Pedro Creek.

Allen and Bradshaw’s submission was chosen, and what they delivered Tuesday is an artwork and education program grounded in all three elements. I would challenge those critical of their design to review the entire 47-page proposal. Unless you attended the meeting, there are many nuances media coverage did not capture in full detail.

Both artists are intimately associated with the creation and opening of Confluence Park on the Mission Reach in March 2018, an outdoor learning laboratory and green space that overnight became a Southside magnet attracting people from across the city as well as visitors. The park is the most important enhancement to the San Antonio River since completion of the $384.1 million San Antonio River Improvements Project in 2013.

Robert Amerman, Executive Director of the San Antonio River Foundation, points out Downtown San Antonio on the river map located on the side of the Estela Avery Education Center at Confluence Park.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Robert Amerman, executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation, points out downtown San Antonio on Watershed Wall, located on the side of the Estela Avery Education Center at Confluence Park.

Go this weekend if you have not yet visited the park. Spend some time exploring Watershed Wall, Bradshaw’s exquisite sculptural relief of the San Antonio River and its tributaries, designed with Allen. Go on a weekday when schoolchildren are visiting on field trips and watch them gather around the artwork to find their place on the river. The work is small in scale, yet larger than life in engaging those who find it.

Interestingly, both Confluence Park and Yanaguana Garden in Hemisfair were completed with minimal political distraction. The result? Two of the most visited outdoor destinations in the urban core.

Wander through Yanaguana Garden’s playground area to find Allen’s Reflect, a steel-ribboned canopy. It’s a shade structure artfully mimicking playground equipment reaching into the sky. Again, it’s a work designed to be experienced by children and adults alike who wander into the structure, not knowing what they will find until they arrive.

The Bexar County commissioners have the ideal local artist collaborative, one that has pledged to make the public art a learning experience, a physical work buttressed by an educational program that will activate the space in the hearts and minds of children, luring them away from their ever-present digital screens, back into urban nature and the realm of imagination.

21 thoughts on “Balancing Act: The Creative Tension Between Politics and Public Art

  1. One of the few times I would have to disagree. The other examples of work from Confluence and Hemisfair are actually interesting to look at. Also, the reason those two parks are success stories is not simply because of these artists work, but because of the programming, mission and millions of dollars of improvements these sites have enjoyed. Confluence is architecturally stunning. Hemisfair right in the middle of the most visited city in Texas. Of course they are doing well.

    This sculpture is twisted metal that lights up at night. One can make twisted metal look WAY more dynamic and captivating than this. In essence, Plethora was also just “twisted metal”…but it was amazing! It’s a shame we lost it.

    I think the reason many comments on this piece are negative is because the design is boring. And for a price tag of 400,000 I think it’s unfortunate that something more interesting can’t be created.

  2. You are right that the public art dept largely does not have the expertise or professional arts/curatorial experience to select/guide great works, choose appropriate committees/outside expertise, or the ability to adequately defend/present/communicate work to the public or politicians/city employees. That is the main problem with this project and many others. You are also right that the scale — a human scale — is far more appropriate for this space than something to be viewed from the highway.

    This piece has good intentions, but is uninspiring to look at and ultimately wrong for the space. As a permanent public art piece, the casual viewer shouldn’t have to wade through a 40+ page proposal to understand the value of the work or the concept. It skews more towards Society of the Spectacle than something that actually adds value to this particular space visually. It is a tough site to work with, and for many reasons these composition choices make it feel even more alienating (which the selection committee should have flagged and known if they had any significant training or expertise in the arts). Per the proposal, the piece is also activated by digital devices (in both the making and education components)… so, it’s not actually getting anybody away from screens/devices.

    Lastly, Confluence Park was not completed without significant politics or drama… the public just didn’t hear about it.

    • Thank you for sharing your opinions regarding the proposal. If you would like to elaborate or send additional thoughts, we welcome the input. We have established a public comment form here:

      Regarding your comment about the selection committee, you may want to do a little research into the committee members before suggesting that they don’t have any training or expertise.

      best wishes – Stuart Allen

      • Where can we review a comprehensive, unedited transcript of all the comments the vendors are gathering behind closed doors on a so-called “Public Forum” on their website that is nothing but a comment submission form? Where is the public dialogue the vendors are claiming to foster there?

  3. Take Watershed Wall, blow it up to 60ft, and stick it in the ground standing up. That would be much more interesting than what is being proposed now.

    • Awesome! Thank you for being open and inviting. I will fill this out soon. I think you all are great for this project…but I do hope the design changes. Again thank you for allowing critiques.

    • That’s a great idea and in the right spirit. What will you do with the collected feedback? Is it available for the public to view and engage with?

    • Stuart, you have a lively public discussion going on here? Why are you trying to divert it behind a closed door on your website? There is nothing “public” about submitting a web form in private.

  4. Its always difficult to give art its due. Public schools waver in its value to the education of our children. Perhaps there needs to be better architects for MY viewpoint. I, for one, and awaiting the finish of the Frost Tower…. even though I know it is finished.
    I was involved for over 30 years in an annual art auction. I was always amazed that someone bought something that I would never hope to receive as a gift. I think these two young men have stuck their necks out for something unique, almost as unique as a second downtown riverwalk. I applaud them !`

  5. Totally agree about the beauty of this piece

    It is willowy

    And sinuous

    And meaningful

    Very hard to place approvals in politicians hands regarding what is great street art …art is meant to be engaged at a personal level ,,,however the person wants to experience the art,,,,

    Art to be experienced from a car or just to be seen from the car,,,?…is no way to determine the value of a creative work.

    I hope this work of art is approved

  6. Great Article. However the very important sentence, “To the credit of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Commissioner Paul Elizondo, in particular, who was born along San Pedro Creek and died in December, few cities would undertake such a challenging task of restoring a creekway through the concrete and complexity of a modern downtown”, must henceforth never forget to mention former San Antonio River Authority Board Member Roberto Rodriguez, who fought for and ultimately achieved the redirecting of river and creek restoration efforts/investments to the five Westside creeks- originally in the 1954 channelization projects – as this existing project is tied to historic disturbance of the waterways and ecosystems. This detail is important to telling the “future history” accurately.

    This is not to under estimate or take away from the champion efforts of Nelson Wolff and Paul Elizondo, who have (and had) the courage to see this project through. But know that Roberto Rodriguez has earned the title of “Godfather of the Westside Creeks”, a well know and accepted title.

    In that, the conversation generating over Bob’s article is in great part also due to Rodriguez’s tenacity and his great devotion to the Westside creeks. And as Trevino reminds me, regarding the art, “whenever they fight over art it is a good day for art”. GQV

  7. Maybe we could honor this modest creek by planting some things that stick way up in the air, provide habitat, and mitigate heat.

    • That was my advice from the get-go, they should have brought it back to its natural past. Now there’s too much concrete, which make the area hotter. I heard the sections from Nueva St. an onward will change to its more natural state, but who knows. I could envision people fishing on its banks, that would be cool.

  8. “Symbolize,” most local residents(myself at one time), don’t even know what Symbolize means. We need to get away from public art that “symbolizes, reflects, personifies, expresses, canotes, etc, etc. Just construct something that a kid can understand and admire. Historical events such as when the Jesuits and Spanish soldiers first came upon the natives. Statues of these important figures have a heck of a lot more meaning then the orange Flame, the Cheese Grinder in the Convention Center-remodel, and respectfully this proposal. Just my two cents worth.

  9. In the discussions on this piece and the one by Jackie Wang, we have been encouraged to visit links to the RFQ (I have) and to the vendors’ 47-page marketing brochure (I read it). We have been encouraged to divert our comments out of the public eye via comment form on the vendors’ website that collects comments privately (I refuse to be silenced that way.) 

    What we have not yet seen in these two public discussions, is information on any of the other proposals under consideration. Surely there is a short list of finalists whose work was worthy of consideration. Will RR journalists tell us the rest of the story? I have made an inquiry of the contracting officer to view the proposals myself, but that context would be helpful in this discussion.

  10. Despite Mr. Donagher’s suggestion that we are trying to divert the conversation or “silence” the public, our comment form remains open at: Our goal is simply to provide a vehicle for public input that is less exposed than the comments section on the Rivard Report. Many people are not inclined to post comments in a public forum, understandably…
    We have received a total of 3 responses, all very thoughtful. We would be happy to forward those to anyone who would like to read them.
    In terms of the design, we are working on revisions. It is my sincere belief that the dialogue here, in the Commissioner’s Court, and in meetings with many of the Project’s stakeholders will ultimately result in a stronger proposal. We are appreciative of everyone’s input.

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