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Lost In The Coliseum

It Shouldn't Take A Ticket To Civic Center Event To See Paintings


October 28, 2007

Public art projects should be, by definition, available to the public. They should be in a place where all can enjoy them.

Hartford has two public works of art that were born in much controversy, but are now accessible only to people who buy tickets for hockey or basketball games.

The works are two large and colorful paintings created by the great American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988). They hang nearly out of sight on the walls of the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum concourse, visible only to patrons hurrying to find their seats.

These undiscovered treasures were the result of a public grant nearly three decades ago. They should be freely available to the public for that, and because of the trouble it took to get them done.

For whatever reason - something in the air or water?- the Hartford city council in the late 1970s was in an artistic frame of mind. In 1979, just two years after Carl Andre's highly controversial "Stone Field" opened on Main and Gold streets, the council commissioned another public artwork, this one for the Civic Center.

The controversy surrounding this one would outdo the fuss over "Stone Field" and Alexander Calder's "Stegosaurus" some years before that.

The full amount for the 1979 commission was a princely $100,000. The National Endowment for the Arts would grant $50,000. Additionally, the Civic Center reconstruction fund would contribute $40,000. The state Commission on the Arts was initially asked to kick in $10,000, but would later refuse to commit more than $5,000. (The state arts commission objected to giving $10,000 after being informed that Hartford would soon de-fund its own cultural affairs office.) Local developer David Chase would then come forward to donate the remaining $5,000. Even this donation became controversial because Chase was receiving tax breaks on his development projects at the time.

The National Endowment, the main sponsor, began an exhaustive search. The artist initially chosen was Hartford-born Sol LeWitt, a conceptual artist with a worldwide reputation.

The name of the artist was made public and soon the letter-writing began. Letters were written to the editors of the Courant. Letters were sent off to city hall. Editorials were written. Activists from the African American community demanded an artist of color be chosen. (Jacob Lawrence and Benny Andrews, both artists of color, were considered early on and excluded because of past affiliations with the NEA.) To appease local sensitivities, Sol LeWitt kindly offered Romare Bearden, a renowned African American artist with roots in the Harlem Renaissance, half of the award for creating one of the two panels originally planned.

A mock-up of the Lewitt designs was displayed in the Civic Center for public comment. Some didn't like it. Hartford city councilwoman Antoinette Leone had second thoughts and asked if a sculpture could be created instead of the LeWitt's line conceptions. The animosity continued to play out until Lewitt fully withdrew from the project.

Andrea Miller-Keller, a curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and art committee member of the project, observed, "He (LeWitt), quietly and with characteristic dignity, walked out on these clowns." Bearden also withdrew in solidarity but later accepted the commission in full. Recently, Dolly McLean recalled a certain councilwoman was overheard wondering, after hearing the amount of the commission, whether the artist was married.

After months of hoopla and controversy over what was called a "public works project" in 1979 and 1980, Bearden created the two large collages, one with an entertainment theme and the other with a sports motif.

The paintings have been in the coliseum for years. Northland/AEG Management, which took over management of the building in July, has not yet decided what to do with them. A spokeswoman for Northland said the paintings are safe and in good shape, but are so big (18 feet by 12 feet and 18 feet by 14 feet) that it might be difficult to move them without damaging them.

Still, the works were created to be enjoyed by the public in a non-museum environment. Though they are not Bearden's finest works, they are nonetheless worthy of a world-class artist. Northland should find a way for the public to see them.

Bill Katz is an art consultant and owner of Jubilee Fine Art in Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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