Nightmare on Flagler Street

Next month the main branch of the Miami-Dade Public Library celebrates its tenth anniversary at its current location in architect Philip Johnson's fortresslike cultural complex on West Flagler Street. When the library building opened in July 1985, artist Edward Ruscha's site-specific paintings already had been installed; ringing the interior of the first-floor rotunda were ethereal panels that read "Words Without Thoughts Never to Heaven Go," a quotation from Hamlet.

The library art project had contentious beginnings. When an appointed advisory committee of museum professionals first nominated Ruscha for the commission on the basis of his previous work incorporating words and images, the majority of members of the Metro-Dade Art in Public Places Trust voted no. They perceived the work as difficult to understand, and speculated that the California artist's pop-rooted concepts might clash with the character of a civic building. Although the trust requested the recommendation of another artist, the members of the professional advisory committee -- David Whitney (New York City's Whitney Museum), Dianne Vanderlip (Denver Art Museum), and Ira Licht (then-director of Miami's Lowe Art Museum) -- again made their case for Ruscha. The second time around they succeeded. The trust approved the rotunda works, which Ruscha painted in his Los Angeles studio, then shipped to Miami in a specially equipped truck.

Unveiled to general public approval, the rotunda received lavish praise from local art and architecture critics. Art in Public Places then commissioned Ruscha to complete the project by working on the library's lunettes, the semicircular wall areas framed by the high archways throughout the three-story Mediterranean-style building. The entire endeavor, incorporating the rotunda and the lunettes, was carried out over three years at a cost of $310,000.

Since that time Ruscha's work has become a landmark on Miami's artistic landscape, his library project considered a model of successful public art by arts administrators in this country and abroad. Nevertheless, ten years after the site-specific paintings were commissioned, some Miamians still have doubts about Ruscha's work -- particularly its appropriateness for small children.

The artist chose to place paintings of a pair of silhouetted gray sailing vessels in the small lunettes on one wall of the library's first-floor children's room, and put shadowy fragments of a global map in the ones on the opposite wall. The ominous boats, which resemble pirate ships, are slanted as if maneuvering through stormy winds. The artist has said that the ships suggest adventure -- an idea furthered by the maps -- and bravery, evoking the fictional voyages that children can experience through reading.

"One child might think that," asserts Miami-Dade Public Library assistant director William Urbizu. "But another would be scared." According to Urbizu, the library has received numerous complaints from patrons, staff, and library board members about the children's room artwork since its installation. Not only have Ruscha's dark images spooked some kids, he says, but they have created a drab, lifeless environment in the spacious room.

Last spring the library staff decided to do something about the situation without first consulting anyone at Art in Public Places. An employee named Phyllis Campos (who since has left the library) volunteered to create a mural on the children's room back wall, which rises up into three lunettes. Working directly on the surface of the wall, she painted a lively and colorful, if mundane, jungle scene depicting threatened animal species. The mural immediately captures a visitor's eye, and, in the process, takes away attention from Ruscha's more subtle works. The children's room staff also has hung framed Central American textiles underneath Ruscha's lunettes, further nullifying the spirit of the Ruscha images.

"I walk into the children's room and I find this mural on the wall that's interfering with the architectural and artistic concept of the building," notes Margarita Cano, the library's former community relations coordinator, who first saw the mural a couple of months ago. Cano retired in 1993 after working at the library for 29 years. An artist herself, she fiercely supported the library's involvement with art and was an advocate of Ruscha's project from the beginning. "Haven't they ever read Treasure Island?" she fumes, referring to the library staffers' perception of the boats. "I don't understand why ships would be interpreted as an ominous message.

"It's not that the mural's bad," she allows, "it's the appropriation of the wall. What's irresponsible is the fact that it's there competing with Ruscha's work."

Ruscha created paintings of words and evocative images for 56 of the library's 138 lunettes; they were installed in what he described in his proposal to Art in Public Places as "the most meaningful or direct locations" in thematically suitable library departments. Although he chose not to place paintings in all of the lunettes, he did so with the intent of creating "blind pauses," blank areas or negative spaces that added to the artistic rhythm of each room. A clause in the artist's contract stipulated that the areas that Ruscha chose to leave empty must remain so. For the artist, the lunettes offered what he termed at the time "an opportunity to combine the vision of the library with the vision of artistic expression."

"Ruscha was looking for a sense of communicating place and creating a conscious iconography that went throughout the building," explains Bonnie Clearwater, curator for the Center of Contemporary Art in North Miami. In 1988, back when Clearwater was director of the now-defunct Lannan Museum in Lake Worth, she organized an exhibition documenting Ruscha's library project. "He thought out where everything was going to go," she adds. "The children's room lunettes are about imagination and adventure. And they are part of a very important work." Ruscha, she points out, recently was awarded another public library commission in Denver.

While observers such as Clearwater and Cano might view the unplanned-for addendum to Ruscha's work as something akin to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, Urbizu and members of the children's room staff see the in-house work as a definite improvement. "If you look at the children's rooms in libraries around the country, they tend to be more vibrant," insists Urbizu. "Unfortunately, that wasn't taken into account ten years ago."

Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, current director of Art in Public Places, stakes out a middle ground on the issue. "Sometimes people do something like this because they don't appreciate the artwork, sometimes it's because they just don't know," she says. "It would be naive to expect that everyone will have the same appreciation of an artwork. Clearly they should have contacted us, but they just didn't know." A year has passed since Campos executed her mural, yet Rodriguez has not spoken to Ruscha about it; she did, however, mention the situation to his assistant. After receiving complaints from Cano and others, she sent photographs of the new mural to Ruscha about two weeks ago. For now she's taking a wait-and-see attitude. "I'd rather not make a decision for Ed," explains Rodriguez, who adds that the only thing that she legally could ask the library to undo would be the portion of the mural that covers the lunettes, and not the lower part of the wall. "I'm waiting to hear what he [Ruscha] says. He'll probably say remove it." (Ruscha was installing his new project at the Denver Public Library and could not be reached for comment.)

Meanwhile, another case of children supposedly frightened by artwork has been reported at the North Dade branch of the public library, where a large mural commissioned by Art in Public Places more than a decade ago has been cited as the culprit. It seems that images of huge clowns in the painting, done by an artist named Craig Rubadoux, look more like big bogeymen to some impressionable young readers.

"I don't know much about the mural, but I can tell you it's scary," confirms Bernie Smith, a North Dade Regional library employee reached by phone at the branch.

Rodriguez is aware of the problem and says she'd like to commission a new work for that library, one that would reflect the interests of the area's black community. She notes, however, that currently no funds are available for such a project.

The fate of artwork in a library's children's room might strike some people as a tempest in a teapot. But Rodriguez says such controversies over older Art in Public Places projects, which illustrate the delicate balance between the rights of artists and the comfort of their audiences, ultimately have influenced changes in the current public art process.

"In the past, Art in Public Places programs were working with the museum as a model A they were ostensibly amassing an art collection for a city," Rodriguez explains. "As they have matured, they have found their own specific niche. There's more of an emphasis on process and on community input. The opinions of the community are considered more. It's not just art being made in a studio. The audience has become as important as the person who is creating the work and as important as the object itself.

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