Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Public art, private concern

They are lost in the bustle of movement that unfolds on the streets of the Loop every day. Lawyers, investors, students and tourists walk past them as they make their commute from the El to their office buildings. They are the decorations that go unnoticed daily. Different public artworks abound across the streets of Chicago, from the tall, cubist Pablo Picasso sculpture in front of the Daley Center in the Loop to the colorful paintings at the 18th Street stop of the Chicago Transit Authority’s Pink Line. Across the city, sculptures, murals, paintings and photos number in the hundreds, detailing the city’s past, present and future.

Public art has helped to maintain the city’s title as one of America’s cultural icons. Murals, sculptures and paintings in various neighborhoods have been created by local artists to represent the distinct communities that exist throughout the city, from Hyde Park in the city’s South Side to the Near North neighborhood, just outside of the Loop. Mural art, in particular, has emerged as an important artistic outlet in minority communities, says Mario Castillo, a Chicago artist and professor at Columbia College Chicago. Castillo has been called one of Chicago’s first muralists and has created several commissioned works for the city, including a piece currently on display at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in the Pilsen neighborhood. Castillo’s first outdoor public mural, titled “The Wall of Brotherhood,” was created in 1969, and it marked the beginning of a series of mural firsts, including the first anti-Vietnam mural, the first Latino mural, and the first mural to pay homage to Native Americans. While he admits that no piece of art – like no culture – can last forever, Castillo says murals should be preserved because of their cultural significance.

There is no precedent for mural restoration, and it is a given that certain community murals will eventually be lost, Castillo acknowledges. But he adds that the future of public art is strong because the city still commissions artists to produce new work. “There is art in cultural centers around the city,” he says, noting in particular the dozen or so works on display at the Harold Washington Library Center in the Loop, which were commissioned by the city and completed by a group of local Chicago artists.

In 1978, the City Council approved an ordinance that allotted 1.3 percent of the budget for construction on municipal buildings for the creation of public art. The ordinance guarantees money each year to be used for creating public art in and around municipal buildings, including libraries, police stations and fire stations. Some of Chicago’s most well-recognized structures, like the sculptures at Millennium Park, are examples of works of public art funded at least in part through this ordinance. And the “cultural renaissance” that inspired an interest in public art in Chicago was sparked by the original sculpture in Daley Plaza, created by Picasso in 1967.

Despite the creation of new works, there is concern over their maintenance and preservation. Per the city’s ruling, works with serious damage are to be restored before works that have minor degradation. But often the amount of money needed for artwork that requires immediate maintenance exceeds the amount budgeted for renovations, and many pieces are lost, said Ingebord Kohler, a volunteer with the All of Mankind Coalition. The Coalition has been working for six months to preserve the “All of Mankind” mural, created by William Walker, a Chicago artist credited with making several community murals that encourage and celebrate diversity.

Kohler was first drawn to the mural in November 2007, when she went out for a bike ride through her Near North neighborhood. “The way I like to tell the story,” she says, “is that my bike took me to Cabrini-Green.” The mural, painted on the side of Northside Stranger’s Home Church, 617 W. Evergreen Ave., is found in the middle of the high-rise public housing development formerly notorious for its heavy drug and gang activity. As the city of Chicago started to demolish Cabrini-Green – and the 53 other public high-rise buildings in the city – the “All of Mankind” mural became more visible to neighbors who had previously never dared to enter the public housing project. “A lot of buildings have been demolished,” Kohler says. “I was finally able to see what it was about. The closer I got, I was mind-boggled.”

Upon approaching, the first words she saw were “Nazi Germany.” Then, “why they were crucified.” The mural shows the faces of people who have been persecuted throughout history, like Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi and Anne Frank. Kohler was immediately drawn to it because of its “universal appeal,” she says. In the mural, the window of the church shows four figures whose hands are intertwined, presenting different human races and showing harmony, peace and hope. Above the human figures, symbols of the world’s major religions rest. Representations of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, amongst others, are seen on the mural. Doves circle around the various symbols.

After noticing the church was surrounded by signs reading “For Sale” and those of a wrecking company, Kohler wanted to take action. “I realized we had to save it from the wrecking ball,” she says. She contacted Jon Pounds, Executive Director for the Chicago Public Art Group, and together they formed the “All of Mankind Coalition” to build support for the mural. Members of the coalition hope to come to an agreement with the city, either by preserving the church itself, which Kohler says is also historically significant, or by keeping the mural intact and moving it to another location.

Meetings are still in progress with city officials, but the situation draws questions about the conservation of public artworks in Chicago. For the Coalition, their attempt to preserve this piece of art – one of the last murals by William Walker still in existence – commands attention from city officials. But, according to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the condition of the particular piece does not call for mandatory action. According to the department Web site, funds for preserving artwork are first distributed for pieces that have endured serious damage, followed by works that have endured minor damage and lastly works that are at risk of degradation.

That’s why the future of public art in Chicago is unknown. Community groups, like the All of Mankind Coalition, are increasingly becoming more common in neighborhoods where residents are willing to organize in hopes of maintaining the pieces of art that surround them. Groups like the Humboldt Park Mural Restoration Program and the Hubbard Street Mural Project are popping up in Chicago communities, taking the task of maintaining public art into their own hands. And although the city controls the majority of restoration funds and demand outweighs supply, Castillo, at least, isn’t worried about losing public art in the future. “I don’t think it’s ever going to go away,” he says. “It’s so embedded in the culture of Chicago.”

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Public art, private concern