The 3 P's in Raleigh, North Carolina: Politics, Public Art, & Public Education

Article excerpt

Raleigh, North Carolina's failed public art program led the city's Arts Commission to redirect their efforts toward the education of students in the roles art can play in the enhancement of civic life. This is a story of the plan, the failure, and the curriculum that resulted.

As motorists approach the city of Raleigh, bursts of prismatic light flash in the air ahead like a rainbow fragmented into multiple rectangles.

This is the city's artistic welcome to visitors and residents alike. The beacon is the Light + Time Tower, created by Dale Eldred and Roberta Lord. The genesis of the Light + Time Tower could hardly have been rooted more in community history. It evolved from a drive to commemorate the city's Bicentennial in 1992. It was intended by the Raleigh Arts Commission to brighten a stretch of industrial highway that serves as a gateway to downtown. They did not expect it to be a monument to the end of support for public art in the capital city.

A tower is perhaps the least subtle of public art forms. Found throughout the world and throughout time, for all their diverse symbolic purposes, towers are first intended to impress with their sheer height and technical virtuosity. Second, without exception they commemorate something. Observe a single 90-foot tree trunk carved with ancestral Tlingit crests; 600 feet of scrolling narrative carved around Trajan's stone column and topped with a gilded statue of the emperor himself; or Alexandre Eiffel's 984-foot wrought iron celebration of the Industrial Age. Regardless of whether the message sent by each tower is fully understood, its presence alone demands attention.

Politics and Public Art

Raleigh's Bicentennial project led to a Public Art Program, envisioned as an on-going series of site specific works at a prioritized list of locations. Capital Boulevard was first on the list. Even after cosmetic changes, there was little on the Boulevard to create a sense of excitement and arrival. Raleigh needed a tower. The Arts Commission, through its Art in Public Places Committee, appointed a Public Art Subcommittee of arts professionals to create policy for the program and a Task Force of citizens to select an artist for the project. Three levels of review were followed by approval of the City Council. What seemed to be community input to the point of redundancy proved to be little insurance that the finished work would generally be acclaimed or even quietly accepted.

Commissioned to produce the initial work for the program, Dale Eldred brought his interest in the refraction of sunlight to the site. The Kansas City sculptor designed the tower, in his words, "for viewers who pass by at 55 mph. Its 20 glass diffraction panels are arranged at the top of a 40-foot high steel frame. When struck by sunlight, the panels divide it into the colors of the spectrum. Eldred was fascinated by the changing effects of the motion of the sun, the seasons, and daily weather changes. These influences make the tower appear different at each viewing.

Construction of the Tower was delayed by the sudden shocking death of the artist. Eldred died in a flood that invaded his Kansas City studio. It was some months before the Arts Commission staff was able to negotiate with his wife and partner, Roberta Lord, to finish his last project

In form and intent the Light + Time Tower is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, with the scale reduced to fit the modest budget and the close proximity of passing motorists. Although separat ed by a century, the designers of both towers were enthralled by physics and engineering in the service of art. They felt no need to disguise the functional, structural components in their designs. In Paris in 1889, and in Raleigh in 1995, this design decision led to cries of aesthetic disdain from some viewers. Arts Commission members wondered how anyone could not be enchanted by glass rainbows suspended in the air? Their confidence was soon shattered. …