When the Indianapolis Cultural Trail officially opens as a "completed
project" on May 11, it will do so without two key pieces of public art in
place. Together they represent more than half of the trail's total public art
Swarm Street, a $1 million-plus installation below a parking
garage that stands over Virginia Avenue, has been delayed more than a year and
a half because of water damage and may never function as intended. And it will
likely take until late summer 2014 to replace Fred Wilson's E Pluribus Unum,
a statue of a freed slave that was scuttled in its design stage by Cultural
Trail leadership in late 2011 in response to community protest.
Delays and difficulties can be chalked up to high hopes,
Central Indiana Community Foundation President Brian Payne said in a recent
interview with NUVO: "The public art component was hugely ambitious and
the trail is hugely ambitious. And on the public art front, some of our huge
ambitions didn't work out, but I wouldn't trade that for making our ambitions
smaller. We're celebrating the completion of the trail, but because of this one
public art project [Swarm Street] you can't fully use the trail as
designed right now. Is that disappointing? Yeah, but I don't think it's a big
Both projects are largely funded from the Cultural Trail's
$2 million public art budget, which consists entirely of private donations.
(The remaining investment consists of a $250,000 grant awarded by ArtPlace, a
public-private foundation that supports strategic investments in art and
culture to enhance community vibrancy.)
The Swarm Street project remains under Cultural Trail
leadership, meaning that the project's key decision-makers are Payne, as the
president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, and Lori Miser, the director
of the city's Department of Public Works.
The project that will replace E Pluribus Unum is now
under the direction of a public-private problem-solving arm of the Mayor's
Office and the Arts Council of Indianapolis, control having been ceded by
Cultural Trail leadership after Wilson's controversial piece was rejected.
The two delayed projects represent at least $1.2 million of
the Trail's $2 million public art budget, not factoring in the ArtPlace grant
or any additional funds to be spent on Swarm Street. Any funds not spent
on Swarm Street (beyond the $975,000 originally budgeted) will go to the
Cultural Trail's maintenance endowment, which stands at $6 million.
"Every dollar I have to spend on Swarm Street is
a dollar I can't spend for maintenance endowment," Payne said. "We
want to maintain the trail at a really high level, and that's where the tension
When announced in April 2011, Swarm Street, a
motion-activated lighting installation designed by the New York-based Acconci
Studio, was to be the Trail's "last and largest public art installation"
and was "anticipated to be complete by the end of the year." The
piece, whose infrastructure has been installed along Virginia Avenue under the parking
garage south of Maryland Street, was to consist of thousands of LED lights
connected to motion sensors activated by pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
Acconci described to NUVO in late 2011 how the piece would
work: "So let's have a system where, as a person goes through, you
activate a sensor that turns on something like fireflies above you and below
you. They follow you. They become 'attached' to you as you walk. But if someone
comes toward you from another direction, or if someone else walks beside you,
some of your lights go off and lights turn on around the other person. I hope
people will realize they're doing it. I think they will."
According to Mindy Taylor Ross, the public art coordinator
for the Cultural Trail, the piece was functioning as designed by mid-2012. And
then the rains came.
"We thought we would be pretty safe because it's
sheltered in a garage, away from wet weather," Ross said. "And no one
said anything about it being a wet space. We built out the project last spring
when it was incredibly wet, and we realized there was a ton of groundwater
— and a large amount of condensation to the point where it sometimes
rains inside the garage. Electronics started to short out and fail."
The Cultural Trail's design and construction partners have
been "testing and coming up with redesign solutions" after the piece
sustained water damage, according to Ross, who said that a more water-resistant
prototype is currently undergoing environmental testing. Payne said that he
expects results from those tests to be processed by June, at which point he and
Miser, of the Department of Public Works, will decide how to move forward.
"We are emotionally and financially committed to
spending up to an extra $250,000," Payne said, adding that "we may
have to end up compromising on our vision for Swarm Street, so that it still provides light, is interesting to
look at, but doesn't have as big a wow factor."
Why didn't the design and construction teams conduct
environment testing before the piece was first installed? "With hindsight
being 20/20, we wish we would have done groundwater testing," Payne said. "Everyone
who seemed to know a lot about that garage represented it as waterproof. It's
covered, no water gets through; everyone had an assumption that seemed to be
Although the Cultural Trail's website doesn't provide
updates on Swarm Street progress,Ross said that "we're not
keeping any secrets about it."
African-American art installation, take two
Payne said he and other Cultural Trail leaders started out
with the best of intentions when they hired Wilson, a New York-based artist, to
design a piece for the Trail. Payne wanted to be "inclusive" — contacting
Wilson because of the impetus to "have artists of color included" in
the Trail's public art collection — and the project began with meetings
between Wilson and the local African-American community.
Fast-forward to December 2011, when the boards of the
Central Indiana Community Foundation and Cultural Trail, Inc. (the organization
that will maintain the trail once it is completed) unanimously voted to "discontinue"
Wilson's piece, following the "conclusion of a two-year community input
process."Wilson's statue was
a riff on a recently-freed slave that can be found on the Soldiers and Sailors
Monument. On the monument, the freed slave holds in his right hand his unlocked
shackles. Wilson's version would have had the slave holding in the same hand a
flag of the African diaspora.
One group protesting Wilson's piece, Citizens Against Slave
Image, editorialized that "the city of Indianapolis should not be in the
business of housing any negative images portraying any group of its citizens
for the sake of artistic expression, particularly those that have been
historically disenfranchised and oppressed." Such concerns convinced
Cultural Trail leadership that not only should the project be discontinued, but
that a new public art project should be led by community advocates who opposed
The Greater Indianapolis Community Foundation took over the
process of creating a new public art piece shortly after the December 2011
decision. Foundation leadership later invited the Arts Council of Indianapolis,
which has proved its public arts prowess through projects such as 46 for XLVI,
to become a partner on the project. A call to artists with a deadline of July 8
emphasizes that any proposed pieces must positively represent the city's
African-American community. But that doesn't mean a piece will be chosen based
merely on how enthusiastic it is, according to Arts Council CEO and President
"Let me be clear: This is a real public art process,
and we're interested in finding a work of the highest artistic quality,"
Lawrence said. "We're keeping this as open as possible to allow artists to
bring forward whatever they're going to propose."
A jury comprised of art experts and community members who
opposed the Wilson project will select the semifinalists, who will be awarded $1,000 each to
create a scale model. The winner will work from a budget of $150,000 for the
piece, with $25,000 retained to cover maintenance and other costs. The scale
models will go on display in September and October for community comment, and
the artwork will be installed on the Cultural Trail in summer 2014, according
to the project timeline.