Friday, March 20, 2015

Keeping Public Art Public

Philadelphians may live amongst more public art than any city in the world. Before you stop me, consider the more than 3,600 murals commissioned by the Mural Arts Program. Not to mention the seemingly endless supply of carved and cast historical figures, some tucked inconspicuously deep into the woods of Fairmount Park, as well as the modern works incorporated into nearly every commercial and residential development project.

Our city is our greatest museum. And it shows. Because of our vast portfolio of public art, Philadelphia is home to hundreds of amateur and professional photographers, bloggers, and independent periodicals that drape Philadelphia's corner of the internet with the works that have made urban art synonymous with our city.

Elsewhere, the Statue of Liberty is one of the most photographed works of art in the world. It's been recreated in plastic, screen printed onto t-shirts, and brought to life in Ghostbusters II. Closer to modernity, Robert Indiana's LOVE statue which has been placed around the word in multiple languages, is photographed, printed, and sold without any hassle. 


But some places aren't so lucky. Few may know that the country's second largest copper statue sits above the entrance to a municipal building in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, facing a tree filled park, it's kind of hard to see. More people may know about Portland's beautiful Portlandia if artist Raymond Kaskey hadn't spent the last three decades threatening to sue anyone who attempts to use an image of his work.

When Portlandia arrived in Portland, the city's Metropolitan Arts Commission decided to allow artists to intellectually retain ownership of their public works of art.

Kaskey has been quoted as saying, "Not many cities respected artists' rights in those days." They weren't? Was $328,000 1985? It's not as if he commissioned the work himself. I don't want to delve too deeply into the notion of what constitutes art, but if Norman Foster is commissioned for a skyscraper, can he sue everyone who profits from a photograph of the city skyline for copyright infringement?

There's obviously some sort of empirical delineation between buildings and art in Portland,  or at least I hope there is. But if cities like New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia were burdened with such rigid regulations, it would be impossible for a photographer to make a living photographing the people and places within our cities. 

Portland is no stranger to its nanny's overreaching arm, but this particular regulation is capitalistically counter to the city's largely liberal ideals. They aren't protecting the rights of their artists, they're allowing Kaskey to essentially collect residuals from lawsuits long after he skipped town. Meanwhile their urban photographers have to tiptoe around the city for fear of inadvertently photographing intellectual property. 

Luckily most public artists understand their public position, they even embrace it. Photography and replication isn't just flattery, it's free publicity. Unfortunately Kaskey's talent is trumped by his greed, and an otherwise beautiful statue is tainted by what it represents. 

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