Before the Iowa City Council voted 5-2 against contributing $50,000 toward The Lens on Tuesday, nearly 20 community members approached the podium to offer support, opposition and questions regarding the Black Hawk Mini Park and public art project planned for the north end of the Ped Mall.
Those in favor of the project spoke to its aesthetic value and draw for businesses downtown. Bryan Mildenstein, who introduced himself as a homeowner, business owner and longtime community member, said the project “could enhance our downtown area [and] become a focal point of downtown. Downtown is sort of getting its legs back under it after years of being a little bit rundown.” Mildenstein also mentioned what he saw as the value the city would get for its contribution to the project, comparing it to a business owner running a sale with 91% off an item, “roughly the bargain you’re getting by paying $50,000” for a $500,000 sculpture.
Royce Peterson, business agent for Carpenters Union Local 1260, also said he thought the project would be “a beautiful addition to downtown” and added that it would provide work for carpenters. “I think we need to attract businesses as well as residents to the local area. Business is a big part of our community,” he added.
Joyce Summerwill, who serves on a fundraising committee for The Lens, said that what she wanted from the City Council was support specifically for the Cecil Balmond piece at the center of the debate. She noted that previous councils had supported the artist’s work but the current group hadn’t yet approved of either the piece or its placement. “This is important for more reasons than just the fundraising,” she said. A public-private endeavor of this kind, she said, needed a council’s verbal support.
Some speakers emphasized that the project had already been extensively discussed and moved through government and public channels. “I want you to respect the project and procedure that this city initiated two years ago and all the hard work from city staff and community members have put into it,” said Matthew Fleming, a volunteer gallery team member at Public Space One. He backed up the aesthetic appeal of the piece, saying its “size and shape will really activate that space, and add vibrancy to the Ped Mall in general.”
Carol deProsse, formerly a city council member, brought some historical perspective, citing a 1997 Press-Citizen article about on a city council meeting on public support of public art. That meeting, she said, was postponed when the council could not get to the topic of defining art, “much less whether or not the city should report it with funds.” She quoted from the article: “‘Including art in public projects has benefits. It helps to build community.'” She said, “The Lens is not ‘building community.'”
DeProsse continued, “Whatever the process, the process has failed to bring any reasonable community consensus about The Lens and I hope you will reject not only the funding for The Lens but the idea of The Lens. The project for the redevelopment of the north Ped Mall is not to start until next year and there is time to go back and look at what might be done.” There was time, she said, to find a solution that a “larger segment of community” would like.
Also taking turns at the podium were Nancy Bird of the Iowa City Downtown District and business owner Bill Nusser, co-chairs of a fundraising committee for the project. Nusser spoke to complaints about the process and the selection of artist, saying there had been six occasions for public comment on the sculpture and that artist Cecil Balmond, though he may not have Iowa City connections, planned to involve people from UI’s art and engineering schools in his project.
Bird said she wanted a clear indication of the council’s intentions. “Where there’s not clarity is whether or not the plan in place will be supported and approved, and we’d like that gesture from the council prior to even really talking about fundraiser piece. … Whether or not you’re going to get consensus on what the public art should be” is one thing, she said, but there was support for public art in general.
Michelle Galvin, who said she’d never been compelled to speak at a city council meeting before, called the perception that people in Iowa City don’t want The Lens a myth. “I’m an Iowa City citizen. I’m a business owner. I live close to downtown and I want it,” she said. “I think what this piece can bring to downtown is it’s interactive public art. It’s for everybody.”
But Caroline Dieterle took the opposite approach. “Giving $50,000 for hiring a fundraiser for The Lens, at best you can say it’s a controversial piece. It’s a frivolous way to spend $50,000,” she said, mentioning expenditures from the city’s strategic plan that had been discussed earlier in the meeting. She said those project were “very practical [and] … well worth funding.”
One community member spoke to the magnitude of the piece and asked what would happen to the smaller bronze sculptures currently on the Ped Mall; another questioned the impact on the quality of life of downtown apartment dwellers, suggesting more green space was preferable to the proposed plan. Brandon Ross called the project “monumental and Trumpish.” Concern was voiced that tax money would be going to hire a fundraiser for a project that wasn’t publicly supported. Someone asked what would happen to the $50,000 in question if the fundraiser failed to raise the full sum needed for the project.
The council voted 5-2 against the sculpture. Prior to the vote, council member Susan Mims who, along with council member Terry Dickens, voted for the funding, said that for the council not to support the piece and fundraising “really puts into question any kind of public engagement that we would ask of our community members in the future.”
Council member John Thomas said that while he saw general agreement for public art in Black Hawk Mini Park, “I do not feel that the concept of The Lens has general agreement in Iowa City.”
After the funding vote, the council voted 4-3 against “show[ing] commitment” for the project. The future of the Ped Mall renovation project remains unclear. City Manager Geoff Fruin told the Press-Citizen, “Exactly where it goes from here as a larger project, I don’t know.”