Over the past few months striking progress has been made on the Memorial Art Gallery's Centennial Sculpture Park, as well as the ArtWalk Extension project that has transformed the surrounding neighborhood. Sections of the forbidding iron fence that previously surrounded the gallery's grounds have been removed, and the at-one-time boiling controversy over the large-scale sculptural installation by internationally renowned artist Tom Otterness has been reduced to barely a simmer. City spoke again with representatives for the MAG, with protestors, and this time with Otterness himself to learn more about the sculpture park and its place in the context of the Neighborhood of the Arts, as well as the greater Rochester community.
The Centennial Sculpture Park is projected to be completed by October 2013, and will include more than 20 sculptures, new gardens, and a word-laden walkway through the museum's campus. A year's worth of celebrations kick off this month with the premiere of Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik's original composition based on work in the MAG's collection. Future programming will include major speakers, gala events, and unveilings and dedications of monumental works by Albert Paley and Wendell Castle.
The transformation of the gallery's campus along University and North Goodman is already so dramatic that the final product could not have been appreciated through the renderings. A canopy of trees towers over Otterness's massive limestone statues and the new space feels like an open park, not a place owned by a private institution. The statues' basic forms have been criticized by members of the community for a lack of character and sophistication, called a safe choice for the gallery, and compared to various toys meant for infants. I myself had doubts about Otterness' aesthetic choices, but since experiencing the space myself and talking with the artist, I have a new appreciation for the playfulness he's injected into the behemoth and minute figures.
The Otterness commission, "Creation Myth," was installed concurrently with the ArtWalk Extension project that wrapped in early October; that project included additional sculptural art, benches, bulletin boards, and revamped sidewalks along East Avenue, University Avenue, and North Goodman Street. "The area has become a science-art corridor," says Grant Holcomb, director of the Memorial Art Gallery. "We feel very proud of our part in this larger art park of Neighborhood of the Arts."
Brooklyn-based artist Otterness traveled to Rochester to oversee and participate in the installation process. I spoke with the artist in late October, when he was doing some final walkthroughs to finish up on-site detail work on the sculptures, and finalizing the locations of the little bronze sculptures that accompany the big stone statues on the corner, and which act like a breadcrumb trail to the front doors of the gallery. Tiny by comparison, the bronzes cling to or perch upon the larger limestone sculptures, acting out the process of the sculpting or helping the sculptor with hatched chisel-mark details on the stone.
The figures are made up of essential artistic forms — the cube, sphere, and cone, which are serendipitously echoed elsewhere along the now-completed ArtWalk Extension project — an aesthetic the artist adopted in 1978, when he was creating work using simplified forms inspired by Russian Constructivists and international sign imagery. Here, he puts some untraditional twists on the basic male-female symbols, with bronzes of same-sex pairs engaged in a tender kiss ("It seemed good not to have it so heterocentric," Otterness says) and others representing Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony penning their landmark publication, "The Revolution."
The installation is "sort of a reverse Pygmalion story," says Otterness. "Instead of the guy carving the gal out of stone and kissing her and she comes to life, it's the reverse. The gal is the sculptor and she's trying to carve the right guy. This is the quarry scene," Otterness says, referring to the amphitheater that now stands behind the main sculptures. "She's been back here working, she's given up on the other two guys back here. The one's hands are backwards, the other one's head has fallen off. They all have problems. The guy up front has his feet stuck together, but she keeps trying." The work alludes to both people and their creative processes as being in continually unfinished states.
For more than a year MAG has been challenged by groups protesting the Otterness commission and MAG's association with the artist. Their concerns stem from an art film Otterness made in 1977 in which he shot and killed a dog. Though most of the public discourse on the Centennial Sculpture Park has focused on one controversial installation, the MAG staff doesn't see the park as simply "an isolated commission, but a new presence, a new sense of space, a new gift to the community," says Holcomb.
Despite protests and petitions drawn up in opposition to the Otterness commission, Holcomb says that the gallery lost no more than two dozen members. In fact, it actually gained new members who wanted to show their support, and had 25,000 more people attend gallery events in the past year than the year before, according to Holcomb.
The responses from those who wanted the MAG to rescind the Otterness commission have ranged from measured conversation to more extreme approaches. According to Holcomb, one person contacted Holcomb's former employers, various staff members have been threatened, there have been angry, anonymous postings to voice mails, and Otterness's life has been threatened. Holcomb calls the matter disturbing "in the sense that positions of vengeance and revenge and anonymous threats are just not a part of the world we're used to," he says. "We've learned a lot, and I can personally say that I found the experience, if disturbing at times, enlightening overall."
"I don't think people's minds will be changed overnight," says Marjorie Searl, chief MAG curator, of the Otterness installation. "But no matter how people feel intellectually, I think it's only fair for them to experience the space," she says. Then she hopes that people can determine on a personal level if there is long-term value to this community "of having a space like this [which] helps to open them up to seeing Tom and his work in a larger sense, rather than focusing on one event, as repugnant as that event is to all of us."
Experiencing the space is not an option for some protestors. "I won't go down there, unless an organized protest comes to fruition," says Dr. Michelle Brownstein, a veterinarian at Henrietta Animal Hospital. Brownstein is the originator of the Rochesterians Against Tom Otterness petition, which she says now has almost 4,000 signatures. Her feelings about the Otterness commission have not changed, though she expressed disappointment that the fire from the protestors "took such a nosedive and lost so much popularity" in the past year.
Brownstein continues to believe that Otterness's apology for the dog incident, which he made publicly in 2008, was insufficient, and sees the installation as "a tribute to a guy that abuses animals, that has abused animals in the past," she says. Her long-term hope is that the sculptures are removed.
The MAG has pursued the possibility of some kind of tangible form of contrition being paid by Otterness, possibly to a local animal-advocacy group, but no resolution has been detailed at this point.
One unfortunate side effect of the controversy is that a public talk and formal unveiling of the work with the artist present is basically impossible. But despite the threats, Otterness says he wasn't personally harassed during the installation process — in fact, one passing driver shouted out a commendation of the progress made by the artist and the installation team, he says.
MAG has considered the possibility of the sculptures being vandalized, and the organization has taken the usual precautions to try to discourage it, including the use of video surveillance. Artist, MAG member, and NOTA resident of 22 years Paulette Davis doesn't think it's likely that the installation will be defaced, but says that if that happens, it would be a selfish act.
"Don't penalize the rest of us as city dwellers," she says. Davis says she has already witnessed positive interactions between neighborhood residents and the "playful, engaging" new sculptures, which she believes invite a wider audience from the community on to MAG's campus. Davis sees the protests as "almost a class issue," and says that protestors shouldn't discount the opinions of the people who welcome the installation.
A Creative Workshop instructor for years, and a professed animal lover, Davis considers Otterness's controversial past action to be abhorrent. But, she says, "in general, I don't feel people should be held to one act of cruelty or even extreme stupidity" if the person has apologized and hasn't repeated it.
"Life is dynamic and life does not stay fixed in the past," says MAG curator Searl. "We don't bring to any other work of art the life history, typically, of the artist who created it, and if we did, we would certainly have a hard time with some of the works of art that are most valued in our culture."
"If we are consistent in the way we appreciate art," Searl says, "over time, people are going to have to decide if the art has value standing on its own."
Progress on the Centennial Sculpture Park will continue with the completion of Jackie Ferrara's "The Rochester Project" as the year ends, followed by installations of Paley's and Castle's sculptures in the summer of 2013. Watch for future updates and postings on MAG's Centennial at rochestercitynewspaper.com.