TOM HARTON Commentary: Creativity is right around the corner

Don’t know what to make of the city’s new focus on public art? Talk to the hand.

Or rather, talk about the hand. That’s what people here should be doing later this month when a blackand-white image of a care giver’s outstretched hand starts popping up on cultural institutions and billboards around the city.

The work of art, “Untitled (for Jeff),” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, is on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and it’s evidence that the city’s public-art initiative didn’t end when “Mad Mom” and other works by Tom Otterness were trucked away last month.

The Otterness sculptures were a mass-market hit. “Untitled (for Jeff)” should also have universal appeal, but, unlike Otterness’ work, it might also stir conversations about AIDS, diversity and the importance of caring for one another.

The installation of banners bearing the Gonzalez-Torres image will begin Nov. 14 leading up to the official opening of the project Nov. 20. In the more than two months it will be on display at 18 locations city-wide, people are sure to talk. That was the intent of the artist, a Cuban-born American who died of AIDS-related complications in 1996. Gonzalez-Torres valued public interpretation of his art.

There should be interpretation aplenty. Community discussions are scheduled for the Artsgarden, Herron School of Art and Design and three public library branches. And because “Untitled (for Jeff)” won’t be accompanied by explanatory text, there should be a fair amount of street-corner discussion among people who like it; people who don’t; and those who look at it, scratch their heads and wonder why “this hand thing” is suddenly showing up everywhere.

It’s showing up because of Public Art Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Public Art Indy is a program of the Arts Council of Indianapolis funded by the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission. It’s responsible for keeping public art in the spotlight. The Gonzalez-Torres installation, in particular, was spearheaded by the IMA, which opens its 25,000-square-foot contemporary art galleries on, not coincidentally, Nov. 20.

The timing is apt, even though most people who see “Untitled (for Jeff)” won’t ever visit the IMA. That’s the beauty of the hand and public art in general. It doesn’t charge admission or require a special trip. It shows up uninvited, but you’re glad it did. Public art entertains, inspires, beautifies, unifies, sometimes divides, teaches, creates a sense of place, and makes us laugh, cry and think.

It doesn’t have to come from an artist of international acclaim: Local schoolkids painted the murals on the Monon Trail just north of 52nd Street. Indianapolis artist James Tyler created Brick Head 3, already a landmark in Davlan Park at Massachusetts Avenue and Alabama Street.

Sometimes the art is found in architecture: Check out the art deco gridwork on the new Conrad Hotel.

Next up is a pilot program of the Arts Council and the city’s Cultural Development Commission that could become a permanent outlet for the city’s artists.

Four of them will be commissioned to fill four display windows on the Pennsylvania Street side of the newly named Chase Tower with works in steel, fabric, photography or glass. A fifth artist will paint a mural on the front window of the vacant McOuat building at 14 E. Washington St.

Twelve artists culled from the Arts Commission’s database of more than 400 are vying for the exposure and pay that would come along with being commissioned to fill one of the five spots.

Representatives of the Arts Commission and the participating building owners-Equity Office Properties and John Demaree and Bill Ehret-will pick the winners this time around, probably by Thanksgiving. Next year, there will be an open call for artists and a professional panel will judge the work.

The program is expected to last through 2006 but could be extended indefinitely if it catches on.

With all this thought-provoking art dressing up our public spaces, people might actually start to expect it. In a city where art and design haven’t gotten the broad attention they deserve, that would be a monumental achievement.

Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to

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