Downtown Park’s Art Is Huge Mistake
Mishmash of ugly artifacts in the park raises questions about “public art” initiatives.
The plans to develop W. Wisconsin Ave. are truly heartening, especially for those for those of us downtown residents who have lived through the years-long stagnation of what is now about to become, once again, a lively and magnificent Main Street — not just for Milwaukee but for the whole state.
We are excited to see not only the rich mix of commercial and cultural projects about to be launched, but other initiatives as well, projects designed to enhance the aesthetic environment of the neighborhood. Recently, for example, under the auspices of the Westown Association, I was part of a committee that recommended a nationally known architectural firm to help us develop an ambitious and imaginative lighting plan for Wisconsin Avenue. And recently, it was announced that Russell Bowman, former director of MAM, has been retained by the Marcus Family Foundation to consult on the selection of sculpture for the street.
All great news. At the same time, however, we are also seeing some questionable developments in the Westown neighborhood, projects that, if allowed to continue, will take the shine off the brilliant urban renewal we are all hoping for.
For the last year, Postman’s Plot, a small triangle at W. Wells St. and N. Plankinton Ave., has been filled with a large, poorly maintained “public art” installation. A mishmash of badly made “lawn furniture,” a huge ungainly table, and several large blue mailbox-like structures meant to remind us of the the park’s proximity to the place where the postal union was first formed, the resulting conglomeration has overwhelmed the modest space of Postman’s Plot. (The lawn chairs and spindly stools that littered the park this summer have been removed, ostensibly for the winter, but NEWaukee, the social architecture company in charge of this, may bring them back for the next season.) Instead of creating a pleasant and democratic meeting place, the organizers of this project succeeded in making it inhospitable to all.
Contrast this with what Bowman is going to do and the amateurism of Postman’s Plot becomes glaring. Even more alarming, NEWaukee appears to have an agreement with the city that gives it control of Postman’s Plot for the foreseeable future. If this is indeed so, that agreement should be revisited without delay.
What the failure of Postman’s Plot makes clear is that running a street party/artifacts fair like Nightmarket (for which NEWaukee is justly celebrated) is one thing, but real urban design and real art are quite another. Postman’s Plot is what happens when the two are confused.
Given the right designer, Postman’s Plot – which is only a block from City Hall — could be as charming a square as any in Greenwich Village. Now, however, the view is blocked by an ugly, didactic obstruction masquerading as a socially relevant sculpture. It’s an imposition, both literally and figuratively, on the neighborhood’s small but crucial parcel of common urban space.
This is a mistake. If there is no money to develop Postman’s Plot properly, it is a much better strategy for the future to leave this modest little park alone rather than give it over to the present tenants, who have proven to lack any serious approach to urban design.
This kind of thing is easy to do, installing low-grade work in the nooks, in the crannies and even in more central spaces of the city. In fact, we are seeing more and more of these beguilingly low-cost “public art” initiatives. At the same time that Bowman’s hiring was announced, there was also unveiled a plan to have a competition for local artists to decorate Westown’s utility boxes.
I think we need to be very careful about adding such “public art” to our present urban fabric. I think we need to be more discriminating, not less, when it comes to enthusiastic proposals for filling up the space around us, usually with stuff that doesn’t deserve to be there in the first place. The fact of the matter is that Milwaukee no longer needs to prove that we are a hip and arty place. The city is becoming such a place organically, through the countless developments, new bars, restaurants, increased density and new energy transforming so many neighborhoods. Overlaying all this with “public art” initiatives like the one in Postman’s Plot may look like an easy win, but they don’t wear very well. And, once installed, these cheap effects tend to linger on — and to degrade – the very public sphere they were meant to improve.
Dick Blau is a downtown resident and professor of film at UW-Milwaukee.
Postman’s Plot Ribbon Cutting