What Happens When Governments and Public Artists Don’t See Eye-to-Eye

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | April 13, 2016

Ed Wilson's controversial birds sculpture. Image via the artist.

Ed Wilson’s controversial birds sculpture. Image via the artist.

Ed Wilson and his metal sculptures have been part of the Houston art scene for decades. He’s shown across the state and in Germany but his upcoming installation — a sculpture of birds in the George R. Brown Convention Center — will be the largest piece he’s ever done. And he almost didn’t do it.

Wilson won the coveted commission for the convention center back in September 2014. The semi-public Houston First Corporation had put up the money for the piece, and the city contracted the Houston Arts Alliance to gather the proposals. Reviewed first by a panel of professionals, then two committees, the Houston First Corporation has the final say on the artist. But things didn’t go so smoothly for Wilson. His proposal won unanimous support from the panel.

Then, things started to get controversial. With an $830,000 contract in front of him, Wilson was told the Arts Alliance was taking back its offer. It seems the decision hadn’t worked its way through the other steps past the panel. Public outcry followed, as some in the arts community felt the local art scene had been snubbed.

Eventually, Wilson won the votes and got the commission after all, only to be met with more controversy yet again, when it came time for the city council to vote on reimbursing the Houston First Corporation for the work. The total cost, adding in fees paid to the Houston Arts Alliance, reached more than $1 million.

The Houston Chronicle reported in February:

Asked to approve the transfer of more than $1 million to pay for the project authorized last year, however, several council members … questioned whether the city should be promoting artwork depicting birds.

“Bird migration. Why?” Councilman Robert Gallegos asked during an 18-minute debate alternately tense and jesting. “How are we promoting the city with global trade, space exploration? That’s what Houston is. I don’t have a problem that you want to promote the birds, but promote global trade.”

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig joined Gallegos in critiquing the avian migration and flight theme.

“I’ve expressed my concern to Houston First about our branding and trying to make us something that we’re not,” Stardig said, referring to the agency that runs the city’s convention and entertainment facilities. “We need to embrace our space. We’re known for NASA. People come here, they don’t talk about the migration of birds.”

Thus, Wilson and his large, perforated stainless steel mobile of birds and clouds, were, yet again, at the heart of a debate about the role and value of public art.

Eventually, the city did approve the funds. With the work now awaiting installation, Wilson said — despite the controversey at multiple steps of the process — he’d do it all again. He spoke with the Urban Edge about the experience. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What is it like working on a big public piece like this? Is it different than what you’re used to?

Absolutely. My work tends to have some sort of social statement, but in the realm of public art, that’s really not appropriate. To me, it’s not. My goal was to make something that is truly public, that everybody who passes through that space can walk away from there taking some sort of ‘wow’ factor. In other words, you don’t have to come in there and be trained visually to experience the piece.

Image via Ed Wilson.

Image via Ed Wilson.

There were a few councilmembers who suggested the piece wasn’t representative of Houston, that the price tag was too expensive and that elected officials should have more of a say in the use of public funds.

That whole city council thing – the point was branding. I’m an artist, we’re not really branding, but one way you could brand this town is as a cultural town. You can project that to the world.

I guess they’ll just have to wait to see it and form their opinions then. And not everybody is going to get it. There are a lot of people in the public that will walk by and ‘why are we spending a million dollars on a piece of art?’

And what do you say to that?

I think it enhances the quality of life. You go to any major city in the world, the capitals of Europe, New York and Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle, they all have great public art and are known for it. I think it just makes life better. It’s intangible. And I think it’s necessary.

Before it even got to city council, you had to decide whether to resubmit your proposal when the Houston Arts Alliance rescinded your contract. 

I put a lot of thought into whether I’d do it again. In the end, it really came down to the fact that the revocation of the first deal got so many people in this town upset. There was just this groundswell of support. It was like I was almost obligated to do it.

Were you surprised by the response?

I didn’t expect all that. It was huge, people walking around with those “Ed” buttons on. That’s really kind of humbling.

In the end, I don’t think they were necessarily passionate about me. There were a lot of people responding that I don’t even know. But they were responding to what they saw as an injustice.

A lot of the conversation was also about recognition for local artists. Where did that come from?

In the committee meeting where this thing was shot down, there was talk by certain members of the Civic Art Committee that they wanted to have someone that was “blue chip” get this project. And when you start saying that word, there’s not too many people in this town that are blue chip. So that was the implication, that they wanted someone better than this town could provide. 

Who do you think should be selecting these big projects?

Leave it to people that know art. Just because you have money and power and all that doesn’t mean you know art. Just because you can afford to buy a “blue chip” collection does not necessarily mean you have the expertise that an artist does, that an art professional does.

Now that the thing is built, in crates and ready to be installed in time for the Super Bowl, would you do another big public art project?

Sure. I made it through it. Maybe someone else will want to have me do a public art piece. But let’s get this one up and see what the response is to it. I’m confident it’s going to be a good piece.

Can you describe it?

I designed the shapes and all of that in relationship to the architecture that was there. The question then becomes, how can you make an impact in a space that big with an object. The solution for me was to take a bunch of little objects and hang them in that space in a way that it becomes a big object, activating that space.

The sculpture itself is about 65’ by 65’ by 30’ with the light element that projects the colored shadows of the piece onto a 100’ by 55’ rectangular white ceiling.

What are you hoping people walk away with after seeing it?

That they remember it. There’s no message. It’s just about making something beautiful, and if that aesthetic statement is powerful enough, it will carry with it a memory and experience.

In the George R. Brown, they have all these conventions. Hopefully the guys that work offshore, roughnecks who get greasy and oily every day, when they come into that technology conference, they’ll have an appreciation for this piece. Or the quilt ladies who come in every year. And hopefully the Super Bowl guys will too.

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