Art for Public’s Sake

The painted pianos that have popped up in public places around the region as part of Cincinnati Public Radio’s Play Me, I’m Yours project have struck a chord with residents, the latest example of a public art project that has sparked conversation and helped shape cultural life in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
Rather than compile a long list of such projects, we picked 10 notable ones that residents have embraced, scorned or grown to love. Which ones are your favorites – or least favorites?

1. Tyler Davidson Fountain, 1871

Downtown’s oldest sculpture is beloved by locals and visitors alike. The 43-foot-high bronze and stone fountain, topped by the smiling Genius of Water, was donated to the city by civic leader Henry Probasco to honor Davidson, his brother-in-law. As their business boomed before the Civil War, the two men talked about giving a “utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing” monument to the city.

When Davidson died in 1865, Probasco sold the business and toured Europe searching for inspiration, finding it at a foundry in Munich. August von Kreling’s fountain was dedicated “to the people of Cincinnati” in 1871.

2. Abraham Lincoln, 1917

Today, the 11-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in Lytle Park is considered one of the best representations of the 16th president, but it drew strong public criticism when it was first displayed in 1917 because it portrayed a beardless Lincoln with oversized hands and feet.

Artist George Grey Barnard was commissioned by the Charles P. Taft family to create the work, which took five years to complete. The statue was dedicated in 1917 by former President William Howard Taft, the younger half-brother of Charles.

3. Law and Society, 1972

Berlin-based sculptor and architect Barna Von Sartory created this sculpture after winning a competition to commemorate the Cincinnati Bar Association’s 100th anniversary. His ceremonial gateway is made up of a huge block of limestone resting on two stainless steel posts to symbolize the balance between nature and technology and the relationship between law and society. Pilloried by the public when it was placed on Fountain Square in 1972, it’s now at Sawyer Point.

4. Stegowagenvolkssaurus, 1974

During the gas shortage of the 1970s, late Cincinnati artist Patricia A. Renick combined the body of an actual Volkswagen Beetle with the legs and spikes of a stegosaurus to form the 12-by-20-foot “Stego” as a commentary on fuel consumption and how automobiles might meet the same fate as dinosaurs.

First displayed at the Cincinnati Art Museum and then at the Contemporary Arts Center to critical acclaim, the sculpture was damaged during de-installation after an exhibition in Chicago.

After Renick died in 2007 at age 75, her longtime companion and executor of her estate, Laura Chapman, restored the sculpture and loaned it to the W. Frank Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University in 2009.

Other local works by Renick, a University of Cincinnati art professor for 31 years, include the stainless steel “30 Module Sphere No. 1” made of stainless steel at the corner of Brighton Place and Central Parkway.

5. Cincinnati Gateway at Bicentennial Commons, 1988

There once was a time when flying pigs had nothing to do with Cincinnati. When British-born artist Andrew Leicester presented his design for an elaborate entrance to Sawyer Point for the city’s bicentennial, some, including then-Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken, balked at the idea. The design included four bronze winged pigs emerging from riverboat smokestacks.

After a City Council meeting for which some council members showed up wearing pig snouts, and someone carried in a live piglet wearing paper wings, the pig proponents won out. As Leicester predicted, the city soon went hog wild for the symbol, putting flying pigs on bicentennial merchandise and launching the Flying Pig Marathon in 1999.

6. Metrobot, 1988

For more than 20 years, Nam June Paik’s 26-foot-tall Metrobot stood outside the former location of the Contemporary Arts Center on Fifth Street, presented as a gift from late Heidelberg Distributing Co. owner and philanthropist Albert W. Vontz Jr. in honor of the 200th anniversary of Cincinnati and the 50th anniversary of the CAC.

Paik’s brass-colored sculpture served as an ambassador of the CAC, displaying information about exhibits on its electronic message board arm. It also included a video monitor, a wristwatch clock and a public telephone in its legs. The CAC, now located at Sixth and Walnut streets, took down Metrobot in June 2009 and put it in storage. Its future is uncertain, but there’s some support for putting Metrobot on display again, as evidenced by a “Free Metrobot!” page on Facebook.

7. Big Pig Gig, 2000

Perhaps no public art project has captured the public’s imagination like ArtWorks’ Big Pig Gig, which put porkers on parade throughout Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky from May through October of 2000. Modeled after the international CowParade project, the project featured more than 425 fiberglass pigs designed by artists who gave them punny names such as “Swine Lake” and “Styler Davidson Sow-tain.”

It was called the most successful public art project of its kind in the country after drawing national media attention and an estimated 500,000 out-of-town visitors. After the exhibit, 190 pigs were kept by their sponsors, 170 were sold online and 65 sold at a live auction at Music Hall, raising $839,000 for ArtWorks and other charities.

Some pigs were shipped to other states, but most have stayed in area homes, gardens and building lobbies. The project inspired Glendale to put on a similar project, called the Squirrely Gig, for its sesquicentennial in 2004.

8. Purple People Bridge gateway, 2005

The gateway to the Purple People Bridge on the Cincinnati side of the Ohio River unleashed a flood of complaints over its color, design and price tag. Designed by Cincinnati-based KZF Design, the combination of yellow poles and stainless steel cables cost nearly $400,000. KZF had the last word when it was honored at the ninth annual Cincinnati Design Awards in November 2005 for its contemporary design.

9. Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park, 2003

The 20-acre park, named for Cincinnati’s first African-American mayor, features several works, including a polished stainless steel piece by German architect Peter Haimerl and a circle of large oak pillars designed by Welsh artist David Nash, unveiled in 2003. An 83-foot-high Crystalline Tower, designed by Miami University fine arts professor Susan Ewing and Czech artist Vratislav Novak was expected to follow in the fall, but a funding fight delayed the project.

Escalating costs drove the final price to $400,000, twice the amount budgeted by the park board; grants and donations made up the difference. The triangular titanium, mica and stainless steel tower, topped by a 30-inch aluminum star sheathed in 24-carat gold leaf on a moving arm, was finally installed in November 2005.

10. Murals

These obvious examples of public art have adorned buildings in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky for decades. In the early 1970s, art dealer Carl Solway and Jack Boulton came up with a project called Urban Walls: Cincinnati, inviting 10 area artists and designers to create massive paintings to mask the scars left by urban renewal in the 1960s.

The only one remaining is “Allegro” by Barron Krody on the east wall of Willis Music Building on West Seventh Street. Since 1996, ArtWorks’ MuralWorks program has put up 34 murals in 24 neighborhoods.

This year, Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey put up 19 propaganda-inspired temporary murals around Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as part of his solo exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center. Two were painted over, one in Covington by the building owner and one in Madisonville by someone, never caught.

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