The Austin Arts Commission defuses a community controversy by restarting the process of selecting public art for the soon-to-be-expanded George Washington Carver Museum and Library.
Do the Right Thing
Before a packed room of citizens looking for it to "do the right thing," the Austin Arts Commission voted unanimously at its meeting Monday night to restart the process of selecting public art for the soon-to-be-expanded George Washington Carver Museum and Library. The process had been all but complete in late January when an Art in Public Places selection committee recommended three artists for the project, but once neighbors and friends of the Carver learned that none of the artists are African-Americans, they cried foul. How can a museum that exists to celebrate Austin's African-American community and history, to tell its story, properly fulfill that mission with public artwork created solely by artists from outside that culture? That's allowing someone else to tell our story, they protested.
The AIPP folks were not insensitive to the complaints. AIPP administrator Martha Peters and her colleagues had made a concerted effort to include African-Americans in every step of the Carver project, and in fact African-Americans constituted six of the seven artists invited to the project's two design charettes and four of the five people on the selection committee for the artwork. But because committee members felt they had diligently followed the process, had carefully considered the applications, and still believed in the work of the artists they'd chosen, they wanted to stand by their decision and the artists, perhaps resolving the issue by staking out new ground that would allow more artists -- specifically, African-American artists -- to be included in the project.
The community, however, refused to give up its seat on the bus to the process. Carver patrons pressed the matter, even after the commission approved the committee's choices two weeks ago. They drew up a petition urging the commission to reverse its decision, and on February 11, 60 of them jammed into the small Parks & Recreation Department meeting room to further lobby the commission, with a third of that number addressing the body during citizens' communication. "Don't let the process make you a prisoner," one speaker said. "To have our story told by others ... is unsettling," said another. "Let us have this. This is our culture," said a third. "It belongs to us." Occasionally, the talk grew heated -- a few nasty accusations were thrown at artists, city staff, and the commission -- but passionate protests far outstripped inflammatory rhetoric. The issue here is not race, as one speaker eloquently put it, it's "recognition, representation, and respect."
For an hour, the commissioners listened to the citizens, then they heard from fellow commissioner Mel Ziegler, the body's liaison to AIPP, who offered an alternative from the selection committee that would retain its selections, albeit modified to allow for the inclusion of more artists; and from Bernadette Phifer, the Carver's director and curator, who offered a proposal that would turn the clock back and begin the process anew, with more artists being invited to apply and more community input for the selection committee. (This proposal, she stated, was unanimously approved by the Friends of the Carver group that supports the facility.) The commission spent considerable time discussing the alternatives and their implications, then at 9pm, Commissioner Bobbie Enriquez moved to accept the plan recommended by Phifer and staff. When the question was called, the vote was 7-0 in favor of the Phifer proposal. (Commission Chair Andrea Bryant did not vote.)
So the process of getting new public art for the Carver Museum and Library is back to square one -- almost. The three artists selected by the previous committee and the four artists also named finalists for the project are automatically nominated for participation in the rebooted version. Organizations around the state will be approached to nominate other artists for the project, and a new committee will pore over their applications and select artists for installation at the expanded museum and library in the autumn of 2003.