To the Editor:
I am writing as the former chair of the Public Art Working Group in response to the Sept. 27 editorial “How can we identify with public art we don’t understand?”
When public art stirs up controversial discussions, that is a good thing — it doesn’t do its job if everyone walks by without giving it a second look.
First of all, apologies for the out-of-date information about the Public Art Working Group online (it has just been updated). The group now has 13 members: two are undergraduate students, one is a graduate student. Kate Kraczon, director of exhibitions and chief curator of the David Winton Bell Gallery, took over for me as chair this summer, and the new artistic director of the Brown Arts Institute, Avery Willis Hoffman, is also a member. The Public Art Working Group has an advisory role to the Corporations’ Subcommittee on Public Art, which has the final say. Approving a work of art for our campus is the result of a lengthy process in both committees.
About the Rebecca Warren sculpture itself: It is a loan on a five-year visit. All associated costs were underwritten by generous donors. Since the piece went up in May, it has received some 111 comments on Brown’s Instagram page, mostly skeptical — and some hilariously funny — but also more than 4,000 likes (not counting the likes on the humorous comments).
Decidedly not a representation of a white man on a pedestal, carved realistically in clay and then cast in bronze, Rebecca Warren’s piece questions and satirizes what is placed on pedestals in the first place. It takes sculptural cliches and a critique of the male gaze in the 20th century as its subject matter and emphasizes process rather than perfection. You can literally see and feel the clay that the artist scooped with her hands out of a bucket and heaped on to the structure — nothing is smoothed over to look life-like, but the labor of making art is made visible.
The piece’s irreverence, joyfulness and invitation to rethink our positions is very much in line with Brown’s intellectual traditions. More public art pieces are in the works, and we hope that all of them receive the same level of critical engagement and desire to understand.
Professor of the History of Modern Architecture and Urban Studies Dietrich Neumann was the chair of the Public Art Working Group from 2018 to 2021. He is also the director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. He can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this letter to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.