Opinion: Public contribution to The Lens makes sense

Plans for The Lens. -- photo courtesy of the City of Iowa City
Plans for The Lens. — photo courtesy of the City of Iowa City

While single, I framed a picture of Johnny Cash — an insert from an old record — and hung it in my living room. Later, I got married. My wife and I bought a house. We had different opinions on where (or if, in my wife’s view) we should hang this piece in our new home. It was tough for the two of us to agree on what to do with the picture.

In a city of 72,000, achieving consensus around a piece of public art is dramatically more difficult.

Public art, however, is important. And sometimes it’s expensive. Consequently, next Tuesday the Iowa City Council will — for the second time — consider a proposal to contribute up to $50,000 towards hiring a consultant to guide the fundraising committee in pulling together private funds to pay for The Lens.

Over the last three years, the City has been developing the Downtown Streetscape Project, designed to bring needed infrastructure, landscaping and other improvements to the Ped Mall. The project includes a signature art piece in Blackhawk Mini Park. It’s never been a secret that this type of public art would be expensive. Minutes from the June 5, 2014 Public Art Advisory Committee meeting describe the signature piece as “a significant project that could cost up to $1 million.”

It’s also never been a secret that the art would require a public-private partnership. Minutes from the Committee’s April 10, 2014 meeting reflect a discussion of “utilizing a public-private partnership to help with the project.” Moreover, the Committee has recognized for some time that funding sources outside of the City’s General Fund are necessary. In a Dec. 3, 2013 memo to City Manager Tom Markus, the Committee states that “to sustain an ongoing, stable source of funding for public art in our community, alternative funding sources need to be evaluated and implemented as possible.” As a specific funding alternative, the Committee recommended that the City “[s]eek out and create partnerships” with various groups, including the Iowa City Downtown District. That’s exactly what the City has tried to do with The Lens.

Recently, some Council members appear to believe that a request for public funds is an eleventh hour addition. The project, however, was always intended to be a public-private partnership utilizing at least some City funds. An additional example: On Oct. 6 of last year, the Press-Citizen reported that, in connection with The Lens, the City was “in the process of hiring a fundraising consultant to organize events, such as donor dinners and art displays. …”

A project like this requires quality public input. This input process has spanned three years and involved at least two of the City’s volunteer committees — the Public Art Advisory Committee and the Artist Review Panel. Mayor Jim Throgmorton was a member of the Artist Review Panel.

The City coordinated three public input meetings and three public open houses regarding the Ped Mall project in general. From April to August of 2014, the Public Art Advisory Committee discussed a signature art piece for the Ped Mall and developed a RFQ (Request for Qualifications) to distribute to potential artists.

The Artist Review Panel reviewed the responses, narrowing the field to three finalists. Each participated in a public open house. The Panel recommended Cecil Balmond in January of 2015; Council approved the recommendation the next month. Balmond designed the public art from March to October — with significant input from the Panel.

Whether or not the art suits you, this project is the product of robust public input.

Also, the Ped Mall project isn’t a one-piece-at-a-time deal. It requires a holistic approach. Without The Lens, other improvements to the Ped Mall won’t move forward. Landscaping and other upgrades were designed to complement The Lens. Without this piece of art, the current designs for the park can’t progress.

Three council members have already demonstrated their respect for the public input and detailed planning invested in this project. Mayor Throgmorton, Susan Mims and Kingsley Botchway voted in favor of the proposal on Feb. 2. Terry Dickens — who was unable to attend the meeting — has indicated that he supports the proposal. Thanks to each of you.

Curious what's happening this weekend? Sign up here to stay in the know.

In his State of the City address, Mayor Throgmorton counted the following among the Council’s priorities: developing a strong and resilient local economy, building a vibrant and walkable urban core and enhancing community engagement and intergovernmental relations. The Downtown Streetscape Project — including The Lens — advances each of these priorities. The Council should bear this in mind at next Tuesday’s meeting.


  1. The audacity of multi-millionaire families like the Champions asking for asking for a taxpayer handout is simply staggering. If they love this egg-slicer so much, they can pay for it. They certainly have the money.

  2. Art is a wonderful addition to public places. My problem with this particular piece of art is its size, almost three stories high. I believe this is not in proportion to the space.

  3. I’m all for art, but not this design. It’s too mechanical and lifeless and looks like it’s about to fall over and that experience is too intrusive into an otherwise open space. Art should enhance the surroundings with lightheartness or pizazz, not jut it’s nose into your experience. It’s a fair attempt but try something else, please.

  4. Disagreement over what is art and what is not is natural and opinions tend to be transitory over time. Very glad people voice their opinions (above), it needs to be heard.

    Having said that, I think Joe makes some good points that are factually grounded. This project did not just start a couple months ago, it’s been a long process with lots of input and community effort. I think it’s safe to say both public and private money does not want to chase a bad project.

    Look at all the supporters on the private side, it’s hard to imagine why they would pledge that kind of money without believing it’s good for the community. None of them will ever directly profit from it. The City needs to have some skin in the game too.

    Please ask yourself why these advocates care so much…it might be the same reason YOU love Iowa City.

  5. At least with this piece in place we’ll be prepared when Godzilla comes by and lays a hardboiled egg on the ped mall.

  6. I encourage all interested parties to watch the video presentation by Mr. Balmond (recorded by community television) in which he explains how the sculpture will complement the space, engage pedestrians, and capture light/shadows both day and night. His description of the piece provides much greater detail than the single image conveys.

  7. About the criticism of the design, the same kind of criticism was levied at the Picasso sculpture in Daly square in 1967, which is now regarded as a jewel in Chicago’s cultural crown. Look up how Mike Royko described it when he reported on its unveiling – it’s hilarious but not dissimilar to some of the public feeling about Balmond’s proposed piece today. Likewise, the first Art in Public Places grant issued by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1968 went to Alexander Calder, who was about as famous as any artist of the time. His piece, a sculpture in a public square in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was heavily criticized for its design as well, and like some of our local critics have asserted, it was criticized for possessing a corporate quality and resembled a logo. Calder’s response was that “the sculpture could be claimed an authentic entity, even if that entity was created through the logic of a logo”. Calder was delighted, years later when, during a visit to Grand Rapids, he noticed that a version of his sculpture design graced the sides of their garbage trucks. Today, Calder’s sculpture is regarded as a great success and one of the most beloved pieces of public art.

    As for criticism of the size of Balmond’s piece, it’s hard to assert that it is too big for the space when it is set against a 13 story building. One of the committee’s requests of the artist was to create a piece that was proportionate to the space. It must be remembered that the piece is not just the Lens itself, rather it includes a much larger circle on the ground defined by different colored bricks, seating that helps further define the circle as well as establish the Lens as a public space and a rostrem for public speaking at the east end of the ground section, which pays homage to Blackhawk Mini Park’s illustrious past. Balmond is famous for his theory on mathematical relationships in art and the dimension of this public area designed as an extension of the Lens is purposeful, and gives the Lens context within its environment.

    Cecil Balmond is an award-winning artist/architect who has works in nearly every country in the world. Among his public works was a 386 foot sculpture designed for the 2012 Olympics in London and the not yet built Star of Caledonia, a $7 million commission to denote the border of England and Scotland at Gretna which is hoped to bring social and economic benefit to the area. In addition to his prolific body of artwork, he holds or has held distinguished professorships at Penn Design (University of Pennsylvania), Harvard University, Yale, and the London School of Economics. The Artist Selection Committee was fortunate to have three of the most celebrated public artists of our time submit their interest in Iowa City’s project.

    Until the late 1960’s public art was almost exclusively statuary. The emergence of large scale public art in highly visible spaces opened up an equally large scale public debate in terms of the specific work as well as its financing, exactly as we are experiencing today. “Taking the longer view, more often than not the initial response to such works is not the enduring one…Outrage or puzzlement at the outset usually gives way to acceptance, sometimes reluctant but often even affectionate.”, writes Michael Kammen in Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture. So, the likelihood is that today’s criticism of the Lens will morph into tomorrow’s praise and the lesson from the past is that these projects, if well-undertaken, should be funded and supported and will become everything they were hoped to be – and more.

  8. I hope the informed voices are heard and paid attention to regarding “The Lens” project. After spending some time downtown really looking at the space the sculpture is intended for, I can envision its impact and power integrating the old and the new in Iowa City. A quality piece like this needs to emerge from some of the garish development taking place in IC. This would add a deeper meaning to it all, which is badly needed. It’s something for everyone to interpret. The snide comments are demeaning and short-sighted and do not reflect the views of most of us who live here because of the celebration of art and literacy present in Iowa City.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


A collaboration between The Englert Theatre and FilmScene


Help us build the greatest small city for the arts in America—right here in Iowa City. Learn more »

Donate Today

Strengthen • Grow • Evolve is a collaborative campaign led by two Iowa City-based arts nonprofits, The Englert Theatre and FilmScene that seeks a major reinvestment to strengthen the arts through modern and historic venues, innovative programming, and new models of collaboration.


Enjoy a tasting and drinks from the best chefs the area has to offer!

Presented by

Join us Saturday, February 15, 6 p.m.
@ Coralville Marriott Hotel & Conference Center

For 18 years...

Little Village has been telling the truth and changing our little corner of the world.

If you can, help us head into the next 18 years even stronger with a one-time or monthly contribution of $18, or any amount you choose.



America’s intimate festival experience featuring cutting-edge music, the Midwest’s premier indie book fair, and readings and community happenings across downtown Iowa City.