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Guest Opinion: Gateway art process failed

The Ashland City Council is scheduled to review the recommendation of Susan Zoccola’s 20-foot-tall “Gather” sculpture by the Ashland Public Arts Commission on Oct. 6 as its selection for the “Gateway Project” at the intersection of East Main Street and Siskiyou Boulevard. This project is misconceived, poorly executed and suffering from a failed process that should be revisited by a balanced segment of the public, not an echo chamber.

Simply put, I believe the Arts Commission, by design and its own stated goals, has adopted a policy of inserting artwork in Ashland’s downtown core that purposefully ignores the established and valued character of that critically important part of the community. It is unconscionable and, I believe, unwise, that the City Council has established a policy whereby the very body it created in 1974 to oversee and review development within the historic core, the Ashland Historic Commission, has been specifically excluded and superseded from the public art process. One does not need to be clairvoyant to point to recent examples where the disconnect between “art” and community character have resulted in failure downtown. With this proposal for the Gateway Project, Ashland shows every evidence of again missing the mark.

The Arts Commission has an odd approach to Ashland's National Register-listed historic downtown core. By any criteria, this is already the most vibrant, attractive and successful area of our city exactly because of more than 40 years of diligent public and private effort to support and enhance its historic character.

The commission's No. 1 goal in the Gateway request for proposals was to assure the new work is "contemporary." In practice, that virtually guaranteed that the Gateway was to have no visual connection or relation to the context of what it is nominally intended to enhance.

Another Arts Commission goal was to ensure the piece will "… become a visual landmark/iconic to Ashland." Aside from being grandiosely naive and presumptuous (one does not plan for what is going to become an icon), it is absurd to assume that downtown Ashland is just waiting for the Arts Commission to gift it an iconic image.

Ashland’s downtown is already replete with iconic views and character that would be the envy of most communities, from Lithia Park to the Elizabethan Theatre, Pioneer Mike, the Plaza and the Ashland Springs Hotel. It does not need a “contemporary,” over-scaled piece of sculpture as its “gateway.” Particularly one that lacks only a crank and a bunch of numbered balls to become a church Bingo wheel (others have compared it to a squirrel cage).

Public art is fine, but context is important. Perhaps the Arts Commission should leave downtown alone and concentrate on other parts of town. We need not insert over-priced, often vapid works into the one area of town that needs them the least.

I fail to understand how the city can allow one appointed body, the Public Arts Commission, to run roughshod over another, the Ashland Historic Commission, in that very portion of town where the Historic Commission has demonstrably succeeded. I do not understand why the Arts Commission is funded by tourism dollars when the Historic Commission, of which I am a former chairman, is not. Any reasonable person would acknowledge that Ashland’s historic character adds immeasurably to Ashland’s tourism experience. The Historic Commission, unlike the Arts Commission, has a proven track record of maintaining downtown and celebrating it.

This situation needs to be rectified, and while I understand that the City Council may have supported and encouraged the Arts Commission in this process, I hope the council will have the backbone to lead this runaway horse back to the stable. The Gateway Project, in concept, may be fine. But its supporters need to recognize that it is just a part of Ashland’s historic downtown, not its focal point.

I encourage the council to do the right thing. Send this recommendation back to the drawing board and define a balanced path for the Arts Commission and the Historic Commission to work together to assure that public art, in the downtown historic core, is somehow related to the context it seeks to enhance.

George Kramer, an Ashland resident since 1982, is a former chairman of the Ashland Historic Commission.