A proposed veterans memorial raises all kinds of questions about art in Lawrence and a rift in the arts community.
The artist Christo tried to hang a giant drape across a Colorado mountain pass in the 1970s and sparked a national controversy over public art.
In Lawrence, Kansas' "city of the arts," the brouhaha over Mayor Erv Hodges' effort to erect a statue honoring military veterans is flaming passions every bit as emotional as those that burned over Christo's "Valley Curtain" project.
During the past several weeks, as veterans led by Hodges have taken their idea before the city's Arts Commission and Historic Resources Commission, the proposed project has fueled passionate debate.
Much of the public argument has been about placement of the memorial and the process being used to seek approval. The veterans want to put a sculpture at the old Union Pacific Depot in North Lawrence, where soldiers used to board the trains that took them to war.
But stirring beneath the surface are a multitude of broader, and sometimes more esoteric, concerns -- preferences for abstract vs. representational art; the integrity of the depot as both a historic site and a work of art in its own right; and even suggestions of personal rivalries and jealousies between artists.
Last month, the Historic Resources Commission voted 4-2, with one member absent, to recommend accepting the sculpture and placing it in the circle drive parking lot at the depot, which now serves as the Lawrence Visitors Center.
But at least one HRC member has said that if all members had been present there would have been at least three votes against the memorial, and the balance might even have tipped to 3-4 against the plan.
On Wednesday, after lengthy and sometimes acrimonious public comment, the Lawrence Arts Commission tabled the proposal for a month, with a strong suggestion that the veterans consider alternate sites for their sculpture.
Hodges, a retired Marine Corps colonel and chairman of the Douglas County Patriots Memorial Committee, said he knew from the start that getting approval for the memorial would not be easy. But he remains committed to the concept, and the location.
"Our group believes that such a memorial expands the historical use of this lovely building, especially when you consider how many people have left or returned to our community in times of strife through this depot," Hodges told the arts commission.
The heart of the matter
At the center of the debate is the sculpture, and the place the committee wants to put it.
The 14-foot bronze statue, "From the Ashes," by Lawrence sculptor Jim Brothers, depicts a half-man, half-phoenix creature rising from the burning Eldridge Hotel.
Hodges says the sculpture depicts Lawrence's heritage as a city nearly destroyed but revived during the Civil War.
He also said the intent is not to glorify war or depict its horrors, but to pay tribute to "how man can rise from the strife to a higher cause."
The group wants to place the statue in the circle drive just east of the visitors center, set on a 25-foot brick base surrounded by flower gardens. There also would be benches around the monument bearing the insignias of the armed forces and the police and fire services.
Inside the depot, the committee wants to have a computer hooked to a database with historical information about different eras and people in the city's history.
But many people have objected to the site, saying the Union Pacific Depot was renovated over a 12-year period with a very detailed and specific site plan in mind.
While there's little objection to the idea of having a veterans memorial in the city, people concerned about the depot say the size of the sculpture and its placement in the middle of the circle drive would clash with the depot's design scheme.
Furor over the depot
For people in the Lawrence arts community, there is more to the argument than just whether the depot is an appropriate site. It also rekindles some of the old battles that were fought over the depot's renovation.
In 1996, the city agreed to a sculpture at the depot as the centerpiece to a garden in the front lawn of the building. That project was funded by the city's "Percent for Art" program, which sets aside 2 percent of the project cost on public building projects for public art.
The call for sculpture proposals went out, and the city received 42 from around the country. The arts commission pared those to five finalists, put their proposals on display and invited public comment.
Many people who sent in comments preferred a piece by Myles Schachter, Elden Tefft and Mary Weisert titled "Earliest Settlers: Fish of the Kaw," a bronze sculpture depicting seven river fishes.
But the arts commission chose "Mobility," an abstract piece by Shellie Bender suggesting the movement of train wheels, which was eventually placed at the depot.
Among those objecting to Bender's piece was Jim Brothers, the sculptor whose work the veterans now want at the depot near Bender's piece.
Bender has emerged as one of the leading opponents of the Patriots Memorial at the depot.
She denied there was anything personal in her opposition. Brothers declined comment on the earlier controversy.
"The site, obviously, is very precious to me," Bender said. "I poured my heart and soul into that project for a year. I'm not concerned about how the two pieces work together. I'm concerned about whether this works in balance with the whole scheme."
Form vs. function
Arguments on both sides of the debate are as different as the two sculptures.
While "Mobility" is an abstract piece that often must be explained to first-time viewers, "From the Ashes" is more representational. Though laden with symbolism, the form of the burning building and the phoenix transforming into a man are recognizable to most people.
Likewise, people opposed to the memorial at the depot argue aesthetics and symmetry. Those who favor it argue function and convenience.
A group calling itself the Ad Hoc Union Pacific Depot Committee -- including Bender and Kansas University professor Burdett Loomis, who was on the committee that oversaw the depot renovation -- wrote a joint letter to the arts commission outlining their objections.
"We see the Union Pacific Depot as a project that currently works extremely well as a single entity," the group wrote. "It combines historic preservation of an important building with a garden design that can be viewed as a most attractive whole. ... When the garden and the entire project is considered, the introduction of a new, large component negatively affects the overall impact of a first-rate vision and execution."
Hodges, on the other hand, argues that the depot is a perfect spot for the memorial. It's a historic place and a focal point of public activity. It has ample parking. Lawrence needs a memorial in such a place, Hodges says, for observances such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
Also, the depot has space for indoor ceremonies in case of bad weather.
Brothers, meanwhile, says it is time Lawrence had more public art that is "representational." Virtually every project funded by the Percent for Art program is abstract art, he said, and the community needs more art designed to connect with the common man.
Arts commission chairwoman Ellen Williams agreed, though she would not commit to saying whether the depot is an appropriate place for Brothers' piece.
"I think there always is a certain amount of that (tension) between abstract and representational art," Williams said. "But I would hope the artists of Lawrence will pull together and support each other. We're an artistic community and I think we should support each other."
Public funding vs. donated art
Another reason the Patriots Memorial has stirred controversy is the selection process that has been used.
Bender is among those who think the Patriots Memorial should go through the same public review and comment process that her work did in 1996. But others say the memorial is a different kind of project, thus warranting a different process.
"Mobility" was publicly funded art, erected with money set aside specifically for public art projects.
The Patriots Memorial would be "donated art," privately funded by individuals who want to give it to the city for display on public property.
The problem, city officials say, is that there is no formal policy for reviewing and accepting donated art. The arts commission proposed a policy last year and sent it to the city commission for approval. But the commission sent it back to be redrafted as an administrative procedure. Nothing has happened to it since.
"I think it's a very dangerous precedent for a group of people who want to donate art not to have to go through that process," Bender said.
But Hodges says his group has gone through the only process it knows. The proposal has been reviewed by the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which occupies the depot building; the Historic Resources Commission, which reviews any plan that affects historic properties; and the Lawrence Arts Commission, which makes recommendations on public art.
"We have followed the process," Hodges said.
The arts commission Wednesday night voted to table the issue for a month and asked Hodges whether his group would agree to form a site selection committee that could look at other locations before deciding whether to place the memorial at the depot.
Hodges said he would consult with committee members and report back this week.
Meanwhile, the arts commission has resurrected its proposed policy on donated art, which calls for submitting proposals through the arts commission and having them reviewed through the same process that is used in the Percent for Art program.
Once drafted, that policy will go to the Lawrence City Commission for consideration.
City commissioners also will have final say on whether "From the Ashes" is placed at the depot or any other city location.
Hodges said he would abstain from voting as a commissioner on the Patriots Memorial.
-- Peter Hancock's phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is email@example.com.