How hard is it to Spend $2 million on Public Art?

On a hot morning (last July, so—very hot) art gallery owner Diane Stewart stood on the corner of Main Street and a downtown alley.  She was asking passing tourists a simple question: What do you think of downtown SLC? The overwhelming response: It’s a cultural wasteland, Stewart says.

Salt Lake’s downtown has been looking for a new life for decades, betting their hopes on various misguided efforts—the Main Street Plaza ( “a little bit of Paris,”) Gallivan Center, City Creek Mall, the Eccles Theater.

But Stewart’s informal poll revealed, “People were in search of something that wasn’t there yet.”

For the last few years, one much-anticipated answer to that “something” had been the street where she was standing. Regent Street runs parallel between Main and State, connecting City Creek Center with the Gallivan Center. Once called Plum Alley and home to brothels and the families of immigrant railroad workers, a $12.8 million city bond turned abandoned buildings into shops and offices, most as yet unoccupied.

The revamping was part of former Mayor Ralph Becker’s efforts to revive downtown with the 2,500-seat Eccles Theater on Main that backs onto Regent Street. But despite its success as a theater, the fervent hopes of downtown boosters that it would lead to a downtown renaissance proved unfounded. Persuading Eccles’ audiences to do more than visit the theater—to stick around and enjoy a bite or a drink—is something the city has to figure out, says Stewart, “Arts and culture are key to that.”

Not that the city hasn’t tried. Becker’s administration commissioned a piece of art that would transform the Beehive capitol’s downtown identity in the same way the celebrated “Bean” did for Chicago. But the city’s plans to spend $2 million of the $12.8 million city bond on Salt Lake City’s largest-ever public art installation has proved problematic. The city is now on its third attempt at designating an artist—if that third artist doesn’t work out, then, per bond tax regulations, they lose the money.

In 2015, several dozen downtown and arts luminaries were invited to review a short list of artists’ presentations, only to be told their votes didn’t count, infuriating some of the invitees. When asked why they were not told of their lack of a vote, a Salt Lake Arts Council official replied they thought they wouldn’t come.

Internationally-renowned sculptor Janet Echelman beat out five finalists, but after confusion over the total budget for her work, the city rescinded the commission. To ensure smooth sailing for their second attempt, national arts consultant Renee Piechocki was hired. According to her 21-page report, locals yearned for “fewer free standing sculptures” and more digital and temporary art work. Her recommendation, to split the commission in half, using $1 million for a permanent installation, the rest for temporary or multiple-permanent works, was ignored.   

A selection committee including Regent Street property owners and multiple city officials whittled down proposals from 182 artists to a winner and an alternate. That way, if something went wrong with the second anointed artist, and they had to yank the prize away once more, there would be a fallback.

The committee’s first choice, Turkey-born, L.A.-based media artist Refik Anadol presented his idea to the seven-person Art & Design board. Machine depictions: Memories of SLC would use computer algorithms to translate photo and audio of Salt Lake’s history into fluid imagery on a 50 by 50 foot screen. “I’m trying to look at history by imagining the future,” Anadol said, claiming the media wall “will be one of the world’s largest data sculptures.”

Despite the vote of approval from the selection committee and the Art & Design Board, his proposal hit several obstacles, the biggest of which was maintenance and power costs. Rocky Mountain Power estimated the work would cost $90,000 a year in electricity (a figure Anadol and others disputed.) Among Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s commitments as she ramps up for her 2019 re-election bid is a 100 percent renewable energy by 2032, so art with a huge carbon footprint was a non-starter. She turned it down.

The spring 2015 bond has a three-year time limit. The city’s attorneys said there was “wiggle room” to push it past fall 2018, but that’s a tight deadline. As of now, the city’s defining downtown art is still a blank canvas.

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Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark is a freelance journalist who's worked in London, Buenos Aires and now Salt Lake City.

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