John Q Public's Art

The latest model for the new Government Square Transit hub enjoys a 20th-floor Kroger Building conference room all to itself. As Sallie Hilvers, public affairs director for Metro, a nonprofit branc

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The latest model for the new Government Square Transit hub enjoys a 20th-floor Kroger Building conference room all to itself. As Sallie Hilvers, public affairs director for Metro, a nonprofit branch of Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), and Timothy Reynolds, the bus company's director of strategic planning, describe the model's sleek new passenger shelters and safer boarding areas, you can gaze out the building's southern windows and almost make out the hub's Fifth Street location.

Government Square is Cincinnati's prime bus stop — home to 1,000 bus trips and roughly 15,000 passengers per weekday. It's where average Joes of diverse color, class and background mix and mingle on their way to work, school or wherever their interests take them.

A transit hub is a prime spot for public artwork — the first permanent downtown outdoor art in some years — because of the area's constant foot traffic. Metro has reserved $75,000 in federal monies targeted for transit center enhancement for the new artwork on Government Square. All that's left is for Chicago-based artist Josh Garber to present his work later this year.

Garber, best known in Chicago for his 24-foot tall public sculpture "Episodic," a twisting steel piece made from discarded lamp posts at the intersection of Grand and Western avenues, comes to Government Square with solid background and a fair share of good reviews. But the questions that led to his selection over others include: What type of art best represents John Q Public, and who ultimately should make the decision?

The process for art at the renovated Government Square began with a November 2003 invitation to artists that attracted more than 40 applications.

Most, like Garber, were from artists outside of Cincinnati. The Government Square Transit Center Art Committee, comprised of people from the arts and transit communities, met during the first half of 2004 to select four finalists.

There were understandable guidelines to be followed: excellent artistic standards and strength of recent work, knowledge of or experience in public art and the ability to address site conditions.

"We did what we were assembled to do — make an artistic selection," says David Dillon, exhibition coordinator at the Contemporary Arts Center and go-to guy at Semantics Gallery.

He agrees that divided camps over abstract vs. representational 3-D art formed on the committee. They were to be expected. After all, people have varying tastes. There were also different ideas on what art a bus passenger wants to see.

Visual art curators will tell you that they know and can judge quality art and should ultimately decide what's best for the public. If the roles were reversed and the public curated art, museums would mainly display private stamp and matchbox collections.

Curators will say that art needs an informed and respected guide to inform and educate the public on what's good and bad. Others will tell you that a committee of average Joes is as qualified to choose artwork viewed every day by the general public.

In the case of Government Square, the prime fact should be: What does a Metro passenger want to see when stepping off the bus? How about a statue of a bus driver holding the hand of a young passenger? Maybe a giant bus token — except we don't use tokens — or a humongous bus transfer ticket would work?

The work could be familiar or challenge the viewer to make an interpretation. Should it please the largest number of people the way a Hollywood blockbuster is made to sell the most tickets?

Other criteria limited the type of materials appropriate for the installation. The work needs to be easy to maintain and strong. In fact, due to its location in front of the Federal Building, it needs to be somewhat bomb-proof with a base strong enough to stop a car.

The tennis volleys over beauty and ugliness continued for months during this process until compromise finally won out, and Garber was left standing with the commission and deadlines to meet. Dillon says he's not unhappy with the final selection, although he did advocate another semi-finalist.

Look through the pile of paperwork that contains the artist proposals, and you'll see a stack of missed possibilities, including public artist R.M. Fischer and up-and-comer Brad McCombs. It's up to Garber to create something equal to nearby sculptures, Nam Jun Paik's "Metrobot" and George Rickey's transcendent steel kinetic sculpture at Sixth and Main.

Until Garber's work is installed and unveiled early next year, the public will have to trust and wait. The given is that Government Square will become a more efficient, more attractive transit hub. The hope is that it'll also make an artful contribution to street life.

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