Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Response To The Lack of Roanokers Among Market Building Artists

Here is an explanation from my friend Susan Jennings, Roanoke's arts and culture coordinator, about the failure of her group to have a Roanoke artist participating in the Roanoke City Market art displays. Because it's my blog, I'll have a word at the end. Anyhow, here's what Susan has to say:

First, look at the city's public art catalogue on line ( and you will see that the vast majority of the works in the city collection are by regional artists. The city has purchased regional art every year for many years from the annual City Art Show. We could not purchase any works from City Art Show in 2010 because for the first time in over 25 years the Arts Council dropped this show as well as the High School Art Show. You are on The Arts Council board so can perhaps explain that decision. Meanwhile, the Arts Commission Collections Committee is looking at how to fill that gap so we can continue to build the regional collection without City Art Show. (Dan speaking here: This is nice information, but it has nothing to do with what we're talking about. Nothing. The city has a good art program. I like it. I like its director. It is to be commended for the program.)

Second, here are the facts on the market building public art project and public art projects in general. The call for artists was sent to artists throughout the Roanoke region through the Arts Council and other sources. (The response from local artists was extremely low.) The city is prohibited by state purchasing law from giving favoritism to any class of artists, local or otherwise. (Dan's response: Find a way. Local artists responded with little enthusiasm, I'd venture, because they didn't feel any support on this. That state law is probably good for some things, but for art it needs to be changed and my bet is that if Roanoke was committed to having local artwork in the Market Building, it'd be there.)

Selection panels which always include arts professionals choose the best work for the particular site, not the other way around. When we produced our public art plan in 2006 (with lots of community input) the public asked for public art that was diverse and showcase nationally known as well as regional artists. As a writer would you want our public library to only purchase locally written books? Would you want other local museums and attractions to show only locally produced items? Of course not and that is what the public said about the public art program as well. (Me again: We're not talking about museums or libraries; we're talking about a city, which uses tax money from me and represents me. The city should be Roanoke-centric because of what it is. Again, we're off the subject.)

Third, because we have so many talented artists in the area The Arts Commission is working to recruit more local artists to the public art field. Outdoor public art production with all the nuances of materials, fabrication, installation, etc. is a different genre for many of our regional artists. One of the first things we did (before we commissioned the first piece) was hold a workshop for artists on how to become involved in public art. The city received support from the Virginia Commission for the arts to do this. We have had some great results: two bus shelters designed by local artist Ed Dolinger with high schools students, Ann Glover's Trojan Dog now at the fire station on Memorial, Charlie Brouwer's Happy Wanderers back for a second run in AIR. (Not on topic, again. We really need to talk about the Market Building and its artwork, not bus shelters and fire stations. By the way, I love Ann Glover's dog.)

However, we are constantly exploring ways to increase local participation. Last year I offered to host a series of Web workshops produced by the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network for regional artists on this topic and did not have enough takers ( three total) to make it worth the expenditure. I would love to hear from any regional artists who are interested in this type of workshop and would certainly try again. I am also constantly expanding by own e-mail list of artists interested in receiving information about our public art projects. I can be reached at (Good offer, but off topic again.)

OK, now back to me. This is pretty much the explanation I anticipated, but it does not get down to the simple fact that the city is buying art from artists for one of its most historic and most important buildings and none of those artists is from this area. Not a one.

I think it is incumbent on Roanoke to solicit Roanoke artists to make bids here and however it is managed, to make sure somebody from Roanoke is on the walls or floors of the City Market Building. I don't care how many reasons and excuses there are, they are wrong. Roanoke should be represented in this place at this time by Roanokers and I will not be convinced otherwise by a bunch of bureaucratic bullsh ... uh ... rules.

One more thing, lest we forget: I love Susan Jennings and think the job she has done with city art is exemplary. But that doesn't have anything to do with the City Market art.

(Note: My friend Arnette Crocker posted this on Facebook about the above exchange and I think she has nailed the problem: "Same old Roanoke inferiority complex; if it is from Roanoke it can't be all that good. Roanoke has had this kind of complex as long as I can remember, with art, music, writers, all types of talent. I think that is why there are no monuments or statues of leaders. As though "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have me as a member". Little acknowledgment is given to Roanoke talent who have left the area and enjoyed national and international acclaim. First example that comes to mind, photographer Peter Harholdt, Smithsonian photographer, internationally respected, and published. Roanoke began attracting artists in the late '60s and '70s because of the beauty of this area. There are plenty here but most area artists must take their art elsewhere for real recognition and financial support.")


  1. The Virginia Public Procurement Act may or may not be bureaucratic BS, but it is part of the Code of Virginia. Of course, we can work to change the Code, but only by voicing our concerns to our representatives in the General Assembly, not by taking cheap shots at hardworking local staff who are stuck with following the law whether they agree with it or not.

  2. Bill: How is a citizen expressing displeasure at the actions of the city a cheap shot? Is the skin a little thin?

  3. It is not a cheapshot. It is one citizen's opinion. And he has a very good point. I admit I am ignorant of the requirments of the Virginia Public Procurement Act and how the art was procured. So, how WAS it procured?

  4. An interesting idea, Dan . . . that we can wrest good art and artistic engagement out of what's here already. The ingredients are here. We may need to apply more heat. I have little faith in the ability of bureaucrats to decide what's "good art" though. I'm not a fan of the bus stops, which are neither visually inspiring nor even a good shelter from rain.

  5. I particularly love how the trash bag of the "avant garde" trash can at Patrick Henry High waves in the wind, with no can to hold it. A design oversight? A commentary on consumer culture? Magnificent. Groundbreaking. And ugly.

  6. Jill, I agree on the bus stops. I have not found anyone who doesn't find them ahhh... unappealing.

    Dan, Yes our 1% for Art that will come from the Market Building renovation is our tax money. Not counting the interest on the CIP bonds for it.

  7. On the other hand, one must love what one is given. So, if what we've got is an ugly, non-functional trash can, we must claim it. "Behold, the aesthetic output of wacky Roanoke, Virginia!"

    I am fan of the "teddy bear tree," by the way:

  8. I see you have modified (and softened) your original post, Dan, which essentially came across to me as, "I don't care what the law says; anyone who disagrees with me is just making excuses and they're wrong." Otherwise, I completely agree that the Market Building should feature Roanoke artists. It just seems to me that we are more likely to accomplish that objective by encouraging everyone to work together than by pointing fingers and casting aspersions.

  9. I live in Chicago and am involved in public art nationally both as an artist and a teacher. I think the biggest factor in the problem is Susan Jenning's third point. To find, win, and create public art commissions takes a certain amount of training. Many studio artists are daunted by how to make the leap to public art, starting with the application requirements. And because the City needs to be sure to hire artists who are experienced enough to complete a large commission contract by knowing how to work with construction schedules, contractors, fabricators, they have to choose artists who have a track record. It's a Catch 22. I've encountered many cities with the same problem because they've invited me to give training workshops to their local artists so that they can start building a pool of local artists that they can award these commissions to. Good blog, by the way! Lynn Basa

  10. Hey Dan: As an arts lover and longtime arts writer, I appreciate this conversation, but your bullying "shut up/no you shut up" tone stops real dialogue. Public art selection is complicated. I appreciated the background info Susan provided and disagree with your knee-jerk refrain: "this has nothing to do with what we're talking about." It has everything to do with a thoughtful dialogue; the real benefits come with deeper reflections. Thanks for getting the party started.

  11. Lynn:

    If you'll send me your contact information, I'll pass it along to Susan Jennings, whom, I am sure, will be happy to have it.

    Linda: It strikes me that without the "bullying tactics" of the squeaky wheel, nothing constructive gets said. I have rarely known the city to listen to a conversation that wasn't pitched high. (I don't quite know how to feel about being called a "bully." First time.)

    Bill: My primary point in all this is "where there's a will, there's a way." I don't see any will. I hope to, though, and my guess is that the discussion will create some will on future projects, but that doesn't get local art into the Market Building.

  12. Lynn: Oops, forgot to give you a way to reach me without splashing your address all over the 'net (nobody cares about mine):

  13. Dan, almost nobody is motivated to run for public office who isn't unhappy about the way some things have been handled in the past, so I certainly understand your frustration. It just that I think it's preferable to have timely, reasonable diaglogue instead of high-pitched conversations too late. Maybe you could call me some time. Just a thought.

  14. Bill:

    We elect representatives, trusting that this kind of decision will be in the best interest of the city. If we are to get involved in every decision, then there is no sense in a republican form of government.

    This is a complex scenario and I sympathize, especially with Susan Jennings who has worked her butt off for Roanoke artists and has made significant inroads for them.

    I do not exempt the artists from responsibility, either, for not applying, but I understand their reluctance to have to go to class to learn how to do it. That means the process is entirely too complex for most people and it must be simplified.

    Reworking the process is where representatives should lead. Simplify the process, make it appealing for the locals, invite them with the assurance that you're on their side.

    Then you'll get full participation.

  15. Hey Dan: Your record is still clean as I didn't call you a bully. I wrote about your bullying tone in a specific post. It's a small but important clarification. I think you're a teddy bear. Is that better?

  16. Thanks, Dan. That makes a lot more sense to me than the you're-just-making-excuses-and-you're-wrong tone of your original post.

  17. I agree with Jill. Those bus stops with a grant of HOW MUCH???? (fourty-thousand is what the rumor is) on just one, obviously did not go to the actual shelter. They could not keep a flea dry. That money could have been better used to offer an arts program or programs for children! We really need to use the heads the good Lord gave us.

    Try this:
    1. Be practical and realistic about where we live and who we serve.
    2. The other thing is that there was not a lot of interest in the City Art Show as it had an 'exclusive' or snobby feel. Many artists love to make art and show, not have to play the game. Why would you spend the money and time to enter if you knew right off only 20-30 pieces would get in in the first place? Also, If someone does not get it together, the Sidewalk Art show will go down hill as well. Put it back in Elmwood Park, or a new try at Wasena Park for one thing! The Taubman treats local arts horribly, unless you are on the who cares list!
    3. As far as obtaining art for the Roanoke Collection, why don't you go to Galleries and purchase pieces from local artists. You have missed many artists of merit in your collection.
    4. There are so many little smatterings of art events, so who cares? I have to say the (I can not even remember the name) of the event at the Civic Center put on by the Arts Council was a huge embarrassment! What a flop.
    5. An permanent art column in the Roanoke Times would be really appreciated, not that you could ever replace Ann Wienstien!
    6. How many artists feel as if they are being jerked around by cheap politics?

  18. Anonymous:
    I don't like anonymous posts, but you didn't criticize anybody personally and you gave some good suggestions. You should take credit for your thoughts.

    Anonymous II: Teddy Bear? My granddaughter says, "Pampa, you're not fat, you're fluffy." How's a man react to either of those?

  19. The VPPA doesn't have to be run around or changed. The bar doesn't have to be lowered, if that's the implication. IN FACT, I know of an excellent team of regional artists with proven public art experience who submitted a thoroughly researched and well written proposal for the Market Building, which was site-specific and Roanoke-specific, which also included participation by the Jacksonville Center of Floyd. These artists wanted to put their hearts and amazing creativity into this local project because they know its history and care about the Market Building and the Roanoke region from the inside-out. But, unfortunately, their proposal did not make the short list. This is a real shame. Only those on the selection committee could explain why they failed to include these artist among the finalists and instead chose a group of artists with no connection to the region whose work is arguably no better.