Op Ed

Downtown Park’s Art Is Huge Mistake

Mishmash of ugly artifacts in the park raises questions about “public art” initiatives.

By - Jan 17th, 2017 10:51 am
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Postman’s Plot. Photo by Dick Blau.

Postman’s Plot. Photo by Dick Blau.

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.

Table. Photo by Dick Blau.

Table. Photo by Dick Blau.

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.

Postman’s Plot. Photo by Dick Blau.

Postman’s Plot. Photo by Dick Blau.

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.

Postman’s Plot. Photo by Dick Blau.

Postman’s Plot. Photo by Dick Blau.

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


Categories: Op-Ed, Real Estate

14 thoughts on “Op Ed: Downtown Park’s Art Is Huge Mistake”

  1. MidnightSon says:

    Amen, Dick Blau. Music to my ears. Yours was my reaction when this ill-advised offense on a public space happened last year. I walked through the park the weekend before it was officially “unveiled” and already the stools were chipping.

    You rightly offer kudos to NEWaukee for the many other things it has successfully done in the city in recent years. They might argue that this was not simply public art but an attempt at “place making” on a shoestring budget. Whatever. Measure twice, cut once, baby. And, if you can’t afford to do it right, don’t do it.

  2. DLR says:

    Totally agree with Mr.Blau! The artwork overwhelms the space and renders much of tiny space useless and visually unattractive.

  3. Sam says:

    I could say a similar thing about the Haymarket Square Park up on McKinley and 3rd St/MLK, a joint NeWaukee and Associated Bank project. One positive about it is that the space was an empty lot beforehand and from what I saw driving to and from, it was used mostly for neighborhood resident’s dogs to relieve themselves.

    While laudible, building the park hasn’t been much of an asset. McKinley is a major thoroughfare and that site probably would be better off as built space.

    As for organized uses, while NeWaukee attempted to organize at least one event there once the park opened, it hasn’t been used for any organized event since from what I can find.

    Any other organization’s use would be hindered by the following:

    1) Not a single tree was planted, so no shade in the summer months when the park would theoretically be used.
    2) No attempt to shield the park from a busy intersection (where cars regularly go 40+ mph on their way to I-43), so very loud
    3) Not enough people living in the immediate vicinity to utilize the park for their own uses
    4) The one advertised use, floor shuffleboard, is played by few people

    What essentially was done is to create a very nice looking lot for dogs to relieve themselves. That’s a goal that should have been accomplished on a shoestring budget. Thanks Associated Bank!

  4. mbradleyc says:

    Before they tried to put art in that Postman’s Plot, they should have landscaped it. It’s shabby.

  5. Sean says:

    Unfortunately, this appears to have been a way for Newaukee to self promote and nothing more. They’re able to get land via their relationship with Westtown and the Alderman. The Mayor shows up to the ribbon cutting so does the media. They used a low budget/ no budget artist just looking for exposure. Both parties have little to no money to support or maintain the project and this is the result. Where was the approval process for this install? There are to many talented artist around Milwaukee for something like this to grace our downtown.

  6. Virginia Small says:

    Mr. Blau’s op-ed raises many important issues and questions.

    Milwaukee, both city and county, struggles to maintain and maximize its public spaces. Current dilemmas revolve not just around public-art choices but about the commons themselves–and even their purpose and continued existence.

    If parks and other public spaces are not maintained they start going to seed. Sometimes concerned individuals or groups stage an intervention. That may involve sweat equity (such as removing invasive plants) or advocating for government to conduct better stewardship. Some people organize philanthropy–such as to restore Wisconsin Avenue’s bronze monuments. Art historian Diane Buck, who wrote a book chronicling Milwaukee’s public art, is leading that effort.

    I recall that the original goal of Newaukee’s “pop-up” installation was to draw attention to the triangle’s neglect and potential. Apparently that led to a quiet contract of sorts to redesign and perhaps maintain the park.

    It’s worth noting that this triangle is already home to a significant commissioned sculpture installed in 1989 to honor the centennial of the national founding of the Letter Carriers’ Union in a building across from the park. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_Carriers'_Monument

    The sculpture looks fine but the turf is so ratty and benches so puny and uncomfortable there was little reason to visit or linger. However, what process will be used to revive this–or any–public space in the city or county?

    How about some public forums to collectively explore options to improve Milwaukee’s public spaces? Design and aesthetic issues, including art, could be considered. For example, what is the role of communities in using public space to create murals and other art? What about reclaiming vacant or underused spaces for everyone’s use and benefit? What about the lack of comfortable seating in many places?

    Questions about privatization also merit public discussion. As governments de-fund public spaces it becomes tempting to just turn them over to private entities.Then what happens to the whole concept of public space–and the democratic expression and mingling they afford. Should neighbors of a public park be expected to foot the bill to maintain its infrastructure and amenities? In that case, do a few get to control decisions about that space?

    Academics could host such forums; so could nonprofits or even concerned citizens. There’s opportunity for all sorts of creativity and civic-mindedness in thoughtfully–and democratically–revitalizing Milwaukee’s public realm.

  7. Brian S. says:

    Spot on. That is one lovely area that is mucked up by some ugly blue furniture. It seems to me that the artists (or committee) didn’t think about what this installation would look like from different angles or what a jumbled mess it would be in a smaller area. The park needs some tender loving care from a gardener with a vision on how to make the patch of earth an oasis surrounded by some interesting architecture.

  8. John says:

    We don’t need art that is just placed anywhere. Landscaping should have been a first priority. Maybe a fountain would have been nice. Do we want this triangle to be a hangout or something else?

  9. Doug Lueck says:

    What a mess!
    Hit the restart button.

  10. gary says:

    The blue furniture has always appeared to be temporary. I walk past a couple of times each week and was never inspired to sit there on backless benches amid the dog cr*p. I never gave it much thought except to wonder who in hell funds Newaukee.

    One permanent Milwaukee art installation that followed a more standard process was reported on by urbanmilwaukee.com. Typically, even “going by the book”, the installation turned out to be an incomplete version of the original design, with no public explanation forthcoming. The MAM car-wrapped-around-a-pole may have been a better effort at that intersection, making real impact on the community. (I’ve heard that some guerrilla art activists have some plans for the site with … guerrillas.)


  11. Liloldlady says:

    Paint the pseudo lawn furniture a dark green and put it in Ziedler Park or Pere Marquette.

  12. Susie says:

    Thank you for raising this issue, Mr. Blau. As reader “Sean” commented, this was a play by NEWaukee to self-promote, something they are excellent at. They are rightly lauded for their night market. But what people don’t understand is that, while putting on a huge event like that is indeed a lot of work and requires a certain type of talent, it is much easier to be successful at events than with things like public art installations, which stick around. Public art and placemaking requires constant attention and very specific talents that NEWaukee doesn’t posses. NEWaukee has continually bombed at placemaking and public space creation. But they keep asserting and inserting themselves into this realm, using the Mayor, the Aldermen and orgs like WAMDC to give them cover and permission and publicity and money.

  13. Terry Kiley says:

    “Tums” down, thumbs up.

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