Water damage dampens Trail art progress


The moist conditions present in the parking garage over Virginia Avenue undermined the original intent of "Swarm Street," the most ambitious — and most expensive — piece of art along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted photo
  • The moist conditions present in the parking garage over Virginia Avenue undermined the original intent of "Swarm Street," the most ambitious — and most expensive — piece of art along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

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 budget.

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 deal."

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 is."

Swarm Street

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 logical.

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."

A sketch of Fred Wilson's "E Pluribus Unum."
  • A sketch of Fred Wilson's "E Pluribus Unum."

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 statue.

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 Dave Lawrence.

"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.


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