SUSAN WILLIAMS Commentary: Is Otterness art? Does it matter?

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This spring brought unusual “blooms” to our downtown via truck and crane-25 bronze sculptures by New York sculptor Tom Otterness. I watched from my office window as “Free Money” and “Female and Male Tourists” were installed at the Indiana Convention Center near the RCA Dome.

The sculptures were previously displayed in New York City to rave reviews. From Broadway to Indianapolis, it doesn’t get more prestigious than that! The next day, while driving east on Market Street from Illinois Street, I encountered the 10-foot-tall “Hear no Evil” trio of bubble characters staring down the street at the Statehouse from Monument Circle and laughed out loud.

At a recent dinner party attended by some local artists, a few patrons of the arts, and a few of us whom I characterize as “appreciators” of art, the subject of the Otterness exhibition was raised. The tone was set when an artist and a longtime patron concurred that the work was “crap,” cartoon images at best, and generally a big waste of money.

Those of us who were not so schooled in art were put in the position of being embarrassed to admit that we really liked the exhibition. When asked to explain what I like about the work, I recounted my laughter on the Circle. More important, I could attest to the flocks of people with guide maps in their hands enjoying the streets of downtown Indianapolis, walking the Otterness art “trail.” The work is giving so much enjoyment to so many.

Is Otterness’ work art and is it worthy of public display? As long as there are different people in the world, there will be differences in opinion and appreciation of art and of its definition.

One of my dinner companions reminded us that art can be as simple as a flower in a vase and as complex as the Sistine Chapel. He told of a community of impoverished people in Mexico City that are squatters on the sanitary landfills and make it their home. They tunnel through the refuse to recycle whatever they can find of value. A landfill inhabitant found a picture calendar, intact, and proudly hung it on the wall of her tarpaper shack. Her children, who had immigrated to the United States, later returned to rescue their mother. Her most prized possession, the calendar, came with her to her new U.S. home. This was her treasured work of art.

Exhibitions like the Otterness sculptures are wonderful and approachable and bring joy on many levels. Will they stand the test of time like the “Venus de Milo”? Will Robert Indiana’s “Love” or Christo’s “Gates”? Who knows?

There is merit in choosing public art that is approachable. Everyone doesn’t have to understand it or love it. In fact, the debate around our dinner table was healthy. The high-brow world of fine art is certainly entitled to its opinions, but must acknowledge and respect the fact that art appreciation is a personal matter. The “art world” benefits from increased exposure and broadened conversation about art. Support for the arts will grow as the public becomes more comfortable and, as a result, more knowledgeable.

As a longtime proponent of bringing art to our city streets, it gives me such pleasure to see how far we have come. You may not like all the works in the Otterness exhibition, some of the sculptures on the old Washington Street Bridge, or all the art along Massachusetts Avenue, for that matter. But you’ve got to love the fact that the works are there for the public to see, to enjoy and to debate. And that is not “crap.”

Williams is president of Indiana Sports Corp. and a former longtime member of the City-County Council. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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