Speaking of Shafts | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Speaking of Shafts 

Who's paying for the CTA's art attack?

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There's something startling, all right, about local artist Josh Garber's planned sculpture for the revamped Kimball station on the Brown Line, but it's not the phallus some people claim to see. Anyone who finds this loopy pair of columns pornographic better avert their eyes from the entire Chicago skyline. Garber says his inspiration was the lotus, which a Cambodian immigrant told him represents "hope and renewal," the piece's title. In his proposal for the work, Garber notes that it'll be made of thousands of welded aluminum bars, "meant to represent each of the individuals living in the area," while the petals, which double as benches, point to the four corners of the earth. Images of the model, which is now on display at Zolla/Lieberman, suggest vegetation by Dr. Seuss--shiny skinned and weirdly organic. The columns will be out of sync with the station's modern architecture, but here's the real eek factor: the price of these doodads is $113,000.

That's not an exorbitant amount by public-art standards, and includes installation costs, but that's not all. Art's in the works for four additional Brown Line stations at $68,000 each: Evanston's Thomas Skomski will do Rockwell, Chicago's Ellen Rothenberg has Western, and artists from New York and LA got Francisco and Kedzie. Decoration has also been commissioned for seven stations on the Red Line at $90,000 a pop. A total of 25 Red and Brown Line stations are slated to receive major new site-specific works, and that's on the heels of a cool $1 million spent on nine pieces for Blue Line stations last year.

The CTA is perpetually cash-strapped: it had a $55 million budget shortfall last year and is facing mandatory payments to its underfunded pension program that could result in service cutbacks and another fare hike. So riders reaching deep into their pockets to pay the increase in cash fares that went into effect last January might be a little surprised to learn the new mural on the wall of their el stop--the one they've been staring at for the last half hour--cost $90,000. But not to worry: it's our federal tax dollars at work. According to the CTA Web site, the Federal Transit Administration "now believes that the visual quality of the nation's mass transit systems has a profound impact on transit patrons." The FTA "strongly recommends" the inclusion of art in projects it funds and is willing to cough up as much as 5 percent of each project's construction costs to pay for it. That's a rich pot considering the bill for the Blue Line renovation was $482 million.

But who picks this stuff? Five years ago the CTA created its own program, Arts in Transit, to take advantage of the FTA bonanza and went to the city's Department of Cultural Affairs for help in running it. The program's advisory panels--made up of city and CTA staff, neighborhood residents, artists, and local businesspeople--post requests for credentials, then give stipends to up to four artists to develop detailed proposals for each project from which the final choice is made. The process is similar to the city's procedure for its public-art commissions, which has been subject to charges of parochialism and lack of transparency.

Arts in Transit isn't the CTA's only strategy for station enhancement. In 1997 it launched the Adopt-a-Station program, which encourages groups, businesses, and residents to commission art and take responsibility for individual stations for two-year periods. Twenty stations are currently operating under this program, including the Green Line's Conservatory-Central Park Drive station and the Brown Line's Merchandise Mart stop, which in recent months have featured mosaic murals by neighborhood children and photography by Columbia College students. Take a look at the images of the newly commissioned Brown Line art and decide for yourself if it's 70 or 100 grand better than stuff made by a bunch of kids.

Meanwhile, Up North . . .

Evanston's conducting take two of the commissioning process for a $300,000 piece of art for the corner of Sherman and Davis, funded by a percentage of the cost of a new public garage down the block. After dumping an entire group of finalists a year ago, the committee's lined up another group of five contenders: Evanston resident Indira Freitas Johnson and artists from D.C., Ohio, New York, and Ireland. Public Art Committee cochair Gerry Macsai says this might be the swan song for big projects; her group wants to shift its focus from "monumental statues downtown to smaller projects that are community based." It also wants more than its current funding, which is up to one percent of public building construction costs. Earlier this year the committee asked the city council to add up to one percent of all capital-improvement funds (including money for infrastructure like sewers) to the public-art purse. "We didn't get it," Macsai says, but the council did fork over an extra $78,000 for a trial run. Sherman Plaza proposals can be seen on the Evanston Web site and at the public library during Arts Week, October 6-15; the finalists will be there to discuss them on October 11. Public comments are invited but don't carry any formal weight. Warning: the proposals include a couple of major steel shafts.

Miscellany

Last week we ran the wrong phone number for the Chicago Botanic Garden in this space. The right one is 847-835-5440.... After its office at

437 N. Wolcott was burglarized earlier this month, Collaboraction changed the locks; a week later burglars smashed through a metal door and made off with everything that had been left behind on the first round. This week staffers were attempting to function without computers, printers, Internet access--you name it. Marketing coordinator Julianna Mendelsohn says they'd be grateful for cast-off equipment anyone might be able to send their way. She won't be working alone at night anymore either.... Department of Now We Know: a press release for a concert reading of a new musical at Theatre Building Chicago this week lays down the law: "all Monday Night Musicals performances are works in progress and not appropriate for critical review."

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