Artwork lends function to U

by Joe Carlson

One woman said it looks like a ball of yarn. Another said it’s akin to a golf ball unraveling. A nearby sign explained that the object is meant to symbolize “global connections.”
No matter what their interpretations, nearly everyone notices it.
“Sphere,” the piece of public art hanging in the center of the new Carlson School of Management building on the West Bank, is hard to miss. The 15-foot wide globe made of glass strips is suspended from the ceiling by steel cables. The installation was the subject of conversations at the new building’s ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday afternoon.
“While the building was the reason we were there, the art became the focus,” during a previous grand-opening ceremony, said Kayim, coordinator of public art at the University.
“Sphere” is the latest addition in a recent surge of public art installations on campus, Kayim explained. At least one new piece a month appeared on campus since last August.
The recent surge is credited, at least in part, to a program started at the University in 1988 called Public Art on Campus. The program is charged with deciding how to best use money the state gives to the University to install art in public places.
A little-known statute passed in 1984 under Gov. Rudy Perpich directs 1 percent of all tax dollars used to construct or renovate public buildings to art.
The public art program at the University coordinates a committee of students, staff and faculty members who have a vested interest in the art. The appointed artist listens to the needs of the smaller committee and creates a design based on those recommendations.
In the case of the Carlson building, the artist also worked closely with the architects of the building to design a piece that complemented the space.
Verna Monson, chairwoman of the Carlson public art committee and a program associate with the school’s master’s program, said she was pleased with how the sculpture turned out.
“The lightness of it is in direct opposition to the heaviness of the subjects we teach,” Monson said. “There’s just a slight element of chaos in it that I think is exciting.”
But some wonder if the excitement from the sculpture is worth the cost.
The Carlson building cost about $45 million, $25 million of which was a legislative gift. “Sphere” cost $220,000.
Mark Shaughnessy, a graduate student in industrial relations, said although he supports public art, he thought the price tag on “Sphere” was out of line.
“You don’t need to invest upwards of $200,000,” he said.
But the sculptor, Ed Carpenter, countered that it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on the improved quality of life that comes from public art. In Carpenter’s theory, public art does more than just beautify an area.
“As a general rule, I think it’s healthy for a society to spend some of its money to have permanent examples of its aspirations … its dreams,” he said.
Thus, “Sphere” was designed not just as a way to fill space and complete an architectural design. Rather, Carpenter hopes the hanging sculpture will serve as a reminder to future generations of the goals and ideals under which the new Carlson building was built.
“It’s the life, the soul of the people who use that building,” Carpenter said. “How can you quantify that?”
But opponents of public art don’t have too much trouble: they look at the numbers.
However, Carpenter said the total cost of “Sphere” could be misleading, because it included not just construction, but also extensive planning and expensive anchoring and lighting.
As for the artist’s take-home salary, Kayim said public artists rarely get little more than the personal satisfaction of public exposure to their art. Most artists of public pieces get about 10 percent of the total commission, she said.
Although the economic investment into public art is easily quantified, the return on that investment is a little more sketchy. Benefits tend to depend on personal opinions, such as aesthetic value. In a conflict between aesthetics and economics, opponents of public art are hard-pressed to choose the former.
“(The money) could have been directed in other ways that would be a more direct benefit to the students,” Shaughnessy said.
Carpenter countered by saying that if public art isn’t worth funding, then neither are many other things, like stylistic architecture.
“The justification for (public art) is the same as the justification for anything that is beyond the functional,” Carpenter said.
If architects can spend extra money to boost aesthetics — as evidenced by the elaborate, space-age designs in the new building — why can’t public artists?
“If you ignore the human capacity for art, what do you have left?” Carpenter said.
Sara Piekutowski, a sophomore in finance, agreed with Carpenter, albeit with a less serious tone.
“You can do without (public art), but it would be a really boring world if it was brown walls everywhere,” Piekutowski said.
A few days before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, she was sitting in the quiet shadow of “Sphere” at one of the lunch tables on the level directly below the sculpture. As she wrote in a journal, the glass and steel sculpture named after its own geometric shape loomed above her, sparkling violets diluted with natural sunlight from outside.
Although Piekutowski — a self-confessed “artsy person” — didn’t totally comprehend the full meaning of the sculpture, she did appreciate its global meaning and the beauty through which that meaning was communicated.
“It looks like the world,” she said.