Form follows dysfunction

Where’s the public for People Mover’s public art?

First unveiled in 1987, the art in the Detroit People Mover stations has been out of the public eye over the past few years as parts of the system have been shut down due to construction. With the reopening of the entire 2.9-mile circuit, the project's profile is being raised once more. Part of that effort is Art in the Stations: The Detroit People Mover, published by Wayne State University Press. The book is edited by Irene Walt, primary force behind the People Mover art program. It features large color images of all the installations taken by Motown's own Balthazar Korab (one of the world’s premier architectural photographers) plus plenty of facts, including commentaries on individual artworks, artist's biographies and patron information.

Art in the Stations documents work by such local luminaries as Gerome Kamrowski (who died last year at age 90), Charles McGee, Allie McGhee, Tom Phardel and Anat Shiftan, as well as national figures including Stephen Antonakos, Jun Kaneko, Joyce Kozloff, Alvin Loving Jr. and Sandra Osip, several of whom have Detroit connections. It’s a handsome package suitable for coffee-table display. Yet beneath the glossy surface lie thornier issues casual readers might easily overlook.

In the preface, former Detroit Institute of Arts Director Samuel Sachs II declares that "the People Mover stations contain a model for the nation of what a public art project can and should be." Aesthetically, Detroit would appear to stack up pretty well compared to other American metropolises. The Chicago el stations don’t have much artwork; the underground lines of Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., have barely any; and a lot of what's installed in the New York City subway is less than engaging. (Exceptions: Mary Miss’ archeological dissection of Union Square's underground architecture and Tom Otterness’ cartoon-like bronzes at Eighth Avenue and 14th Street.)

But what these cities have that Detroit doesn't is functional mass transit and the sense of community that comes with the daily interaction of large, diverse groups of people. And that’s important in judging the People Mover as public art.

A 1997 study showed People Mover ridership at a paltry 5,000 a day (about half a percent of the city’s population), even before the recent service cutbacks. Thus the question arises as to the effectiveness of public art in Detroit.

Second is the consideration of who created what for the benefit of whom. One photo in the book shows a couple decked out in formal wear strolling in front of the Kaneko installation at Broadway; another has a chamber wind ensemble performing at Cadillac Center. These visions of cosmopolitan diversion are tinged with narrow preconceptions about "good taste," the same genteel myopia that has long fueled bourgeois fantasies of the civic ideal in public art in America.

At the turn of the 20th century, for example, public art gave respite to predominantly Anglo-American upper-class anxieties over the rising tide of immigration and the teeming urban mass. John Massey Rhind's "Victory and Progress," completed in 1902 and set on the roof of the Wayne County Building at Cadillac Square and Randolph, proclaims republican virtue as seen from the top down, with neoclassical allegorical figures riding chariots.

A year later in 1903, the Women's Bi-Centenary Committee of Detroit presented the city with the bronze relief "In Memory of Madame de la Mothe Cadillac," showing triumphant colonialists with swords held high heralding the French aristocrat's landing at river’s edge, while American Indians look on from under a stand of trees off to the side, their tomahawks, bows and arrows cast to the ground. After years in storage, the piece was installed in 1987 in the People Mover Cadillac Center station apparently without a hint of circumspection, a blithe disregard for the commentary Art in the Stations perpetuates.

Arguably most ironic is Kozloff’s "‘D’ is for Detroit." It uses the bear and the bull as symbols of the Detroit Stock Exchange that once stood on the site of the People Mover Financial District station. It's also replete with Arts and Crafts motifs of flora and fauna in pale blues and ochers, references to James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room in the home of renowned Detroit art patron Charles Lang Freer. Both the Exchange and the Freer Collection are long gone, like the outsourced union jobs that let Detroit workers enjoy one of the world's highest living standards.

In his epic poem "The Idea of Detroit," the late great Cass Corridor bard Jim Gustafson writes: "Detroit is the greasy enchilada smeared across the face of a dilemma." Similarly, Art in the Stations is a garnish on the plate of a half-baked idea.

Vince Carducci writes about art and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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