Cleveland's Public Art Hot Spots

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A giant trumpet player, sculpted in concrete, towers over the intersection of Buckeye Road and East 118th Street, blasting his horn while an imaginary breeze blows his tie in the wind.

Created by Pittsburgh artist James Simon, the "Buckeye Trumpet Man" is the centerpiece of the new Art and Soul of Buckeye Community Park. It's also one of the latest additions to a growing collection of outdoor art that's turning Cleveland into a vast, alfresco art gallery.

Outdoor art in Cleveland traces the history of modern sculpture. It also reveals how public art in America has swung over the past century from populist expressions of civic virtue to idiosyncratic visions of individual artists and back to boosterism and pride.

Early-20th-century sculptors such as Daniel Chester French, Karl Bitter, Max Kalish and Henry Hering adorned downtown civic and government buildings and public spaces with heroic statues of allegorical figures or political and military heroes.

From the 1970s to the '90s, government agencies encouraged leading American artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Tony Smith and Claes Oldenburg to impose abstract or intentionally provocative forms on public spaces, sometimes with controversial results.

Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's "Free Stamp," intended as a humorous critique of bureaucratic rubber-stamping, was famously rejected by Standard Oil of Ohio, which originally commissioned the work to stand at the base of its 1985 office tower on Public Square. In 1991, the company, then BP America, gave the work to the city, which installed it at Willard Park.

Funding of public art has remained strong, thanks to grants from private foundations or percent-for-art programs like those of the state of Ohio or the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's Arts in Transit program.

Controversies over public art are rare nowadays, perhaps because public art promoters are minding their manners, or perhaps because government agencies and community organizations have grown wary of stirring anger.

Works like Simon's "Trumpet Man," whose goal is to bolster economic development and neighborhood identity, are becoming the rule. But some artists still find ways to exploit the city's outdoor spaces in more personal ways.

Cleveland Public Art, the city's leading, nonprofit public art agency, founded in 1986, wants to straddle all approaches to public art.

"The public realm is a place that can and should support the work of leading-edge artists and designers," said Greg Peckham, the agency's executive director. At the same time, he thoroughly endorses art that's allied to neighborhood revitalization or integrated in public projects such as RTA's soon-to-be-finished Euclid Corridor rapid bus line, for which artists have designed everything from tree grates to trash receptacles.

"Artists are working hand in hand with design teams to make ordinary objects a little more extraordinary," Peckham said, "to give distinctive flavor to what would otherwise be off-the-shelf components."

Let's look at some recently completed public art projects in Cleveland, and how they stack up.

Buckeye Road pocket park. The 16-foot-tall "Buckeye Trumpet Man" by James Simon dominates the $200,000 Art and Soul of Buckeye Community Park at East 118th Street and Buckeye Road in Cleveland, a project led by Cleveland Public Art and the Buckeye Area Development Corp. The park includes decorative ceramic benches by Angelica Pozo, a dramatic mural by Cleveland artist Francisca Ugalde and photo murals by former Cleveland artist William Carter. With landscaping by Cleveland landscape architect James McKnight, the investment is impressive, although some elements -- especially Ugalde's mural -- are stronger than others.Grade: A-