Art is not a band-aid

The City of Madison is combining public art and social policy in all the wrong ways.

The City of Madison is combining public art and social policy in all the wrong ways.

A portion of the public art installation remaining in

A portion of the public art installation remaining in “Philosopher’s Grove” at the intersection of West Mifflin and State Streets.

How different would the lives of Madisonians be if in creating our civic spaces we considered art from the start, rather than as an afterthought? What if planning for creative uses of public space was as integral to the decision-making process as budgeting, choosing building materials, or coordinating construction? I believe it should be. Involving artists from the very beginning to think through, plan for, and bring to life the creative potential of Madison’s many public spaces could radically change how we experience them.

I’m reflecting on all of this in the wake of recent announcements regarding modifications being made to the top of State Street at the area named Philosopher’s Grove.

Citing crime and loitering, Madison’s city government is now teaming up with the Madison Central Business Improvement District to deal with the so-called problem area. The city began by removing a portion of a public artwork by sculptor Jill Sebastian, which was commissioned for that space and installed in 2004. The city also approved $25,000 worth of funding to support activities to take place there throughout the summer. That’s in addition to the $25,000 cost of removing some of Sebastian’s granite and bronze “Philosopher’s Stones,” which have served as seats and tables for people congregating in the area. Sebastian, who is based in Milwaukee, criticized the removal in a recent interview with The Wisconsin Gazette: “Calling to remove art doesn’t address the root causes but makes amusing reading based on erroneous, unsupported assumptions. If adding art or removing it were a quick solution, wouldn’t that be easy?”

Via the “Top of State” programming effort, the city and its partners are craftily positioning small local vendors, performers, and non-profit groups as occupiers of the space, and hired a summer events coordinator. In recent years, Philosopher’s Grove has been a site where folks who lack anywhere else to go—due to homelessness, unemployment, or other challenges—hang out and pass the time. The city and its cronies want them gone.

In fact, just days after the Madison City Council approved changes to Philosopher’s Grove, Mayor Paul Soglin issued a memo to council members expressing an urgent need for action in response to “Recent Downtown Behavioral Issues.”

I fail to understand how city government can believe that elbowing homeless people out of this space, removing public sculpture that was commissioned for this specific location, and inserting a slate of cultural programming (designed for a totally different audience than “the homeless”) is a good idea.

I’m embarrassed that my city is taking this approach. It’s underhanded and passive-aggressive and lacks both compassion and vision. It also pits unwitting and well-intentioned community members who are providing programming against the population currently making daily use of the space—all so that city staff doesn’t have to deal directly with the situation. Sadly, it’s a classically Madison approach.

I’m tired of the city pawning off responsibilities like this by dressing them up as opportunities for artists and small businesspeople to create culture and make change. That’s not to say the possibility for that to happen doesn’t exist, but that the root causes of poverty, crime, and drug abuse are way more complex than we, as a society and as a city, tend to acknowledge.

What if instead the City of Madison spent the approved-on-short-notice $25,000 worth of funding on programming specifically tailored to the population regularly utilizing the space? Or towards the establishment of a downtown resource center for the homeless? Or on creating housing? Giving folks a bum’s rush out of Philosopher’s Grove by inserting new cultural programming seems like a recipe for disaster. Mayor Soglin needs to get this through his head: Art is not a band-aid for complex social problems.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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