Beall: Artists getting benched

BY MIKE BEALL | JUNE 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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Walking through Iowa City’s downtown, you might have noticed something of a new start for BenchMarks, the city’s communal bench-painting project that began last year. Almost every bench has been painted over, wiped clean of last year’s amateur art projects in preparation for a new painting season.

What you probably haven’t noticed are the changes to this year’s BenchMarks policy.  

Last summer, the project was very simple to get involved in. You could send in a proposal along with an application, and as long as the design was not offensive or promoting politics or business, it had a chance of being accepted. You could then get primer and whatever materials you needed from Dick Blick and paint a downtown bench at your convenience. The process was somewhat informal and made it easy for local artists to showcase their abilities on a bench of their choice.

This summer, individual artists are no longer allowed to paint benches.

A professional art team was hired to organize and facilitate the new incarnation of the project. The team oversaw three workshops in which ideas for a theme and designs were brainstormed. Each bench will showcase a minimalist stencil design. Before submission, the designs are turned into a stencil and then simplified into a single color. All of the simple benches will fit together into a more complex theme.

These changes, while well-intentioned, take away the original charm of the project. It was once a way to involve local artists in the creation of public art downtown. Now, these changes have turned the project into a committee activity with very narrow design goals.

Our local amateur artists have been largely frozen out of the process. Yes, they could involve themselves in brainstorming workshops, but they are not allowed to paint benches, and their designs must fit a very narrow stenciled theme.

Sure, there were several stenciled benches in last year’s project, but most artists involved used other techniques to showcase their style and abilities.

While it is advertised as a collaborative project, BenchMarks no longer serves to show the creativity and skills of local artists but to be the aesthetically appealing plan of a few individuals.

Last year, the benches served to show the scope of what art is in Iowa City. This year, the project shows a limited design planned by a few individuals.

This plan is making locals into cogs in a bench-painting machine, insignificant parts of the design process and then labeling it as a collaborative process.

This is not art; this is a perversion of art in which neither the people coming up with ideas nor the people painting the benches are truly creating anything. This form of collaborative “art” forces an artist to limit her- or himself and then steals the ideas to be painted by another individual.

BenchMarks now limits the creativity of artists and takes away from the local art scene. Art cannot be made by committee. Considering the success of last year’s project, these changes puzzle me.

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