Street Art

Whining About Art at Discovery Green? Time to Open Up Those Wallets

First-time visitors to Chicago's Millennium Park, after shaking off thoughts of the monolith from 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and those triumphant opening notes of Richard Strauss's Sprach Zarathustra), are generally awestruck by the book-ended public art/video sculpture Crown Fountain.

Installed in 2004, the Jaume Plensa-designed homage to dualism has outlasted early criticisms that the pair of 50-foot-tall towers would mar the aesthetics of the park. More than 1,000 residents of all ethnicities were filmed, and about 960 faces are randomly displayed on the towers. Over a five-minute period, the mouth will begin to pucker, then water comes out of the spout, and then the face will smile. It has become a huge draw for Chicagoans to come and try to spot their face on one of the towers. At night, the other three sides of the fountain feature changing colors.

The interactive sculpture has enough wow factor, and celebrates diversity so creatively,  that we sometimes hear rumblings of, "why doesn't Discovery Green have art like that?" The answer is both simple and complex. The price tag for the construction and design of Crown Fountain was $17 million, with the entire cost funded by private donations. So, with enough money, just about anything is possible. 

I'm quick to defend Discovery Green, which has become such a vital part of downtown since its 2008 opening. Philanthropists and the City of Houston paved the way for this 12-acre park, with the land costing $57 million and the building and landscaping another $125 million.

Discovery Green's crown jewel is Monument Au Fantome by Jean Dubuffet, valued at more than $6.7 million and donated by the Dan Duncan family. Other permanent works include Jim Dine’s The House (Heart), Margot Sawyer's Synchronicity of Color, and the Mist Tree and Listening Vessels by Doug Hollis.

We've seen some exciting temporary installations along the way, including David Graeve's Lens - Pluralism – Bubbles, Los Trompos by Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena, two appearances of Bruce Munro's Field of Light and Jorge Marín's 13-piece sculpture installation, "Wings of the City." (We priced two of Marín's winged warriors at the time; El Tiempo was valued at $91,000 and Abrazo Monumental at $71,000.) Interestingly, the most popular of Marín's pieces, the selfie-friendly Alas de la Ciudad (Wings of the City), has a new permanent home in Los Angeles.

What's next for Discovery Green? Susanne Theis, the park's programming director, says that they're working to confirm an exciting winter installation, as well as the funding to make that installation possible.

In the meantime, we've got a few big ticket items coming in next door over at George R. Brown Convention Center. The Houston Arts Alliance, the public-private initiative that invests and nurtures our creative community, has announced two large-scale installations: Ed Wilson's $830,000 60-foot mobile of stainless steel bird and cloud forms; and the $1.34 million kinetic Wings over Water, by artist Joe O'Connell and the team at Creative Machines. The latter promises to be highly interactive, with viewers controlling movement in the Fountain of the Americas fountain. Both will be in place before the end of the year, just in time for Super Bowl LI in February 2017.

To get an idea of how much it costs to purchase public art, here's a look at other City of Houston Civic Art Collection acquisitions since 2010. Philanthropy is key to advancing culture in our community.
  • Radiant Fountains, by Dennis Oppenheim, $1 million (2010, stainless steel, programmed LED lighting) 
  • Cloud Room Field, by Christian Eckart, $600,000 (2015, dichroic glass with anodized aluminum armature and extrusions, and stainless steel components)
  • Vector HH, by Luca Buvoli, $500,000 (2010, steel and cast acrylic sheets)
  • Take-Off, by Carter Ernst and Paul Kittleson, $450,000 (2009, stainless steel and landscaping) 
  • Houston Can You Hear Me?, by Hana Hillerova, $400,000 (2010, powder coated aluminum)
So, what would we like to see installed at Discovery Green in the coming years? We'll put forth a few suggestions here; all it takes is a little green.

There's no denying the power of the Statue of Liberty. But at 305 feet in height (including the pedestal and foundation), the scale isn't right for Discovery Green. But The Beatles from sculptor David Adickes would keep it local and also pair nicely with the musical offerings on the Anheuser-Busch Stage.

Melbourne, Australia's Federation Bells features 39 inverted temple-style bells mounted on steel poles. We could commission something similar for the Waste Management Gardens, on the other side of Kinder Lake and near the McNair Foundation Jogging Trail, so that the melodic sounds don't interfere with events at the Fondren Performance Space.

Trumpet Flower by the art collective Flying Carpet (Patrick Renner, Nick Moser and Kelly O’Brien) is a temporary installation on view in the Downtown District as part of its Art Blocks initiative. It's tall, offers shade, and has enough bright colors that it would look great on the Sarofim Picnic Lawn near the Mist Tree. It's scheduled to come down in February 2017, making it a geographically desirable choice for Discovery Green.

The iconic stainless steel structures by Jeff Koons are whimsical and fun, looking like over-sized Mylar balloon animals. Instead, we could commission Texas artist William Cannings (now a professor at Texas Tech University) who inflates steel sculptures and finishes them with automotive paint. We could begin by purchasing his Hive-4 and Mini Beach Ball (Glow-in-the-Dark) pieces, and commission a few others to sprinkle throughout the park.

Christo, the artist who produces large-scale fabric installations, recently created a three-kilometer long floating pier on Italy’s Lake Iseo using 70,000 square meters of fabric. Previous mega-projects (in collaboration with his late wife, Jeanne-Claude) included the 30-year-in-the-making The Gates, which cost $21 million and draped saffron-colored fabric in New York City's Central Park. Something similar would look nice along the banks of Kinder Lake.

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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney