Amid some concerns, Lawrence City Commission approves design concept for $340,000 art installation for police headquarters

photo by: Contributed rendering

This is a concept that artist Joe O'Connell has created for the artwork he is commissioned to complete for the new Lawrence police headquarters.

Though some questioned the message the piece might communicate, Lawrence city commissioners voted to approve the concept for a public art installation at the city’s new police headquarters.

At its meeting Tuesday, the commission voted 4-1, with Commissioner Lisa Larsen opposed, to approve the concept design for the $340,000 project, which calls for a metal pavilion with panels of colorful glass representations of eyes and light projections. Though some expressed concerns about scant public comment and potentially negative interpretations of the eyes, commissioners who voted to proceed agreed that the art is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

The piece is supposed to relate to the nearby police headquarters, and the artist, Joe O’Connell, told the commission that the eyes were meant to communicate the idea of seeing someone else’s perspective.

“The main theme is empathy, understanding and seeing through people’s eyes,” O’Connell said.

Despite those intentions, Larsen said that to her the eyes felt like surveillance or the idea that police are watching, and she did not think that sent a good signal.

“I like the concept of what you’re trying to do; I just can’t get past this feeling of what the eyes represent, at least to me, and what I’ve heard from various community members,” Larsen said.

Especially given the size of the project, Larsen said she’d like the design concept to go back to the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission to get more public feedback.

The city held two virtual meetings about the design concept on June 26, but city spokesman Porter Arneill said they were not well attended. Arneill said after the Journal-World published an article, some people did get in touch and that he gave them O’Connell’s email address to provide feedback.

Commissioner Jennifer Ananda said she’d also heard comments that the piece seemed to communicate police surveillance, and she asked O’Connell if he’d made changes to the concept based on the feedback he’d gotten. He said some of the feedback was to make sure the eyes didn’t express emotions such as anger and that the eyes didn’t look down on people. In response, he said he planned for the eyes to have empathetic expressions and to have the eyes look upward.

The Arts Commission approved the concept at a meeting in July, and at that time board member Denise Stone said she had heard from someone who didn’t particularly like the eyes in light of the ongoing national conversation about policing and police reform. Arneill said Tuesday that based on the recommendation of the arts commission, the artwork would have a QR code that links to a website providing more information about the project and its message of empathy.

Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley said she liked that the projection would illuminate an area with trails near the police station. She also said she thought the eyes could be interpreted the other way around, and to her art provided an opportunity to think critically.

“I think art is good when you can see it from different ways, so indeed one could say, ‘Oh, well it’s about surveillance,’ but you could also say it’s about how we’re responsible to each other, we all see each other,” Shipley said. “And I guess you could even flip it and say that we’re watching the police.”

Commissioner Stuart Boley said he’d heard concerns about the content as well as the cost of the project, and also worried about the amount of public engagement.

Mayor Brad Finkeldei said that given that there had already been multiple opportunities for the public to comment, he didn’t think sending it back to the arts commission would result in additional feedback. In the end, Finkeldei said he appreciated that the concept had generated discussion and he was excited about moving forward.

“I think in most cases artwork is in the eye of the beholder, and I think this has the ability to spark conversation and also spark pleasure,” Finkeldei said.

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