Greenway art needs to grow

‘Urban Garden’ is a start, but the city needs serious public installations

Tom Otterness’s “Tree of Knowledge’’ is the type of public art that the city needs more of. Tom Otterness’s “Tree of Knowledge’’ is the type of public art that the city needs more of. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2011

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New public art, and a new model for getting it up and running, arrived on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in June. The project has all the makings of invigorating a dreadfully stodgy tradition of public art in Boston.

To make it happen, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy - the park’s nonprofit steward - took up with a private partner, the real estate developer Boston Properties. Then they invited the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum - the go-to institution for outdoor contemporary sculpture in New England - to curate a temporary exhibit on the Greenway’s Parcel 21, between Pearl and Congress streets. The city’s public art oversight group, the Boston Art Commission, gave its approval.

The resulting sculpture installation, “Urban Garden,’’ is timid at best, save for one piece. That’s a pity, because the Greenway has wonderfully revitalized areas of downtown Boston that were once forbidding, and it’s the perfect platform for offering intriguing public art to make people stop, think, and feel.

Tom Otterness’s “Tree of Knowledge’’ is the only sculpture in the group of three works with teeth. Otterness, a nationally known public artist, slyly deploys cute figures to make cutting social commentary. The cheeky “Tree of Knowledge,’’ a 9-foot-tall bronze tree populated with critters, needles the justice system. A blind bird holds the scales of justice as a menacing snake slithers toward it up the tree trunk. A beaver and a possum, both in business suits, represent lawyers. The beaver gnaws away devilishly at the tree’s base.

But the other two works, James Surls’s 14 1/2-foot-tall abstract wheel, “Walking Flower times the Power of Five,’’ and John Ruppert’s four giant gourds in the “Pumpkin Series,’’ are pallid, vanilla offerings that few are likely to remember in years to come.

“There’s room for whimsy in Boston,’’ says Nancy Brennan, the conservancy’s executive director.

We have whimsy, with “Make Way for Ducklings’’ in the Public Garden. Boston deserves public art with real heft and wit - especially now that there’s ample space for it along the Greenway.

“We wanted something for everyone,’’ says Nick Capasso, the deCordova’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, and the curator of “Urban Garden.’’ “This is not the most cutting-edge contemporary sculpture. That’s intentional. The idea is to please the public.’’

Visitors to the Greenway on a recent afternoon did seem pleased.

“I think they’re great. I like any kind of art,’’ said Sylvia Blumenthal, who lives in the Leather District and spends a lot of time in the Greenway. Looking at the Surls sculpture, she added, “Great shapes, nice material. The black is vivid against the green [landscaping]. My only concern is that it might be tempting to climb on.’’

“I don’t know much about sculpture, but it makes it more of a city park,’’ said Rob Finnerty of Charlestown.

Contemporary art doesn’t have to be alienating to be good, though. In New York, the nonprofit Public Art Fund, helmed by Nicholas Baume, former chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, initiates projects that grab viewers with cleverness and beauty. In recent years, the agency has organized projects by artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Christian Jankowski, Anish Kapoor and Roxy Paine. Eliasson’s waterfalls, Jankowski’s statues of street performers, Kapoor’s mirrored sculptures, and Paine’s steely trees demonstrate that public art can be playful as well as provocative.

According to Brennan, Bostonians are clamoring for public art. Last November, the conservancy took a citywide survey asking what people wanted on the Greenway. Public art was the number one answer.

The model of privately funded, temporary public installations is a great solution. Boston Properties underwrote “Urban Garden,’’ which sits directly in front of the firm’s new Atlantic Wharf development. The exhibit will only be up through October 2012, so it went through a streamlined approval process at the Boston Art Commission. Permanent works can take years to get approved, and the public process, while a civic necessity, can water down aesthetic daring.

Before “Urban Garden,’’ the Greenway orchestrated two other temporary sculpture installations. In 2009, George Sherwood’s twisting kinetic sculpture “Botanica’’ was installed across from the Boston Harbor Hotel, and last November it was replaced by Jacob Kulin’s “Modern Dance,’’ an abstraction of a dancing figure. Sherwood and Kulin are both local artists, and their works fall into the same tepid realm as Ruppert’s and Surls’s. They’re tame abstractions.

“Urban Garden’’ adds to the dribble of unremarkable, and even blatantly bad, public art projects that have been erected in Boston in recent decades, including the deplorably kitschy Irish famine memorial in Downtown Crossing, and the saccharine Ted Williams statue outside Fenway Park. With the Greenway as a stage, and the focus on contemporary art in Boston growing with the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art in the fall - it’s time to take our public art more seriously.

For this project, deCordova executive director Dennis Kois says his team came up with several proposals - one, “forward looking and edgy,’’ he says, and a second featuring “blue chip abstract art, like Sol LeWitt.’’ Then there was “Urban Garden,’’ which Kois calls “more digestible and publicly accessible. It was up to the Greenway to choose the most appropriate.’’

“But there’s a reason to be conservative,’’ he adds. “Hopefully, in 20 years there will be great public art along the Greenway.’’

Brennan also takes the long-range view. “Urban Garden’’ is the first of many projects, and partnerships with arts organizations, that the conservancy will undertake in the future.

“For us, this is an early step in the Greenway’s relationship with public art,’’ she says. “Ten years from now, after many installations of rotating public art, we may look back and see an arc of styles.’’

“Urban Garden’’ is the first public art project the deCordova has taken on, and it’s the museum’s first major outdoor effort off-campus.

“We see a vacuum,’’ Kois says of the public art in Boston. “There’s a reason Boston could have better public art. We can help with that. We hope to collaborate with other groups.’’

In an odd twist of timing, a second group invited the deCordova to curate a program at the Greenway this summer. The Boston Harbor Islands Alliance and the architecture firm Utile, which designed the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion on the Greenway, invited the museum to present a video program on the pavilion’s two 8-by-10-foot LED screens. “Nature Special,’’ five videos from the deCordova’s library, screen nightly after dark. The deCordova’s associate curator, Dina Deitsch, organized the program, about society’s relationship with the great outdoors.

“Nature Special’’ engages viewers on several levels. Because the videos - by Jim Campbell, Suara Welitoff, Sam Easterson, and William Lamson - are on pixellated LED screens, they’re easy to read from a distance, and images grow more abstract as you get closer. They activate the space around them.

Campbell’s low-resolution “Grand Central Station’’ features shadowy pedestrians, echoing those crossing the Greenway. Welitoff’s gorgeously slowed-down “Kiss’’ spotlights two hovering hummingbirds, their wings rotating in a flurry of abstract gestures. Easterson’s “Burrowing Owl’’ makes direct eye contact with the viewer, veritably inviting us into its lair. Lamson’s “Emerge’’ is lighthearted, with colorful balls popping to the surface of water and drifting into the air - on the LED screen, it’s marvelously abstract.

Videos don’t have the gravity, or the suggestion of permanence, that even temporary sculptures have. It’s easier to slip a bright-minded art video into the public realm. If viewers don’t like it, well, it will pass soon enough.

There is no reason to wait for exciting public art in Boston. With a model for temporary projects, and the willingness of private funders to help out, the Greenway could offer so much more than pumpkins.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at