Right now in Old Town, some of the last pieces of a long public art saga are falling into place as artist Brian Goldbloom installs two steel and granite lanterns on the corner of NW 3rd and Flanders. The sculptures were meant to reflect the history of various ethnic groups that have lived in the Old Town neighborhood and they do, but after heated debates over design and the vandalism of one of the sculptures, the pieces wound up reflecting the present realities of minority communities, too.
Back in 2004, the Regional Arts and Culture council began two years of meetings to design "festival streets" in Old Town lined with public sculptures. The PDC hoped the new art would help revitalize the neighborhood culturally, but instead the first of eight sculptures installed -- a granite dragon -- revealed fissures between the official Chinatown and Chinatown where most of the Chinese community actually lived out near 82nd Ave, as well as drawing a lot of criticism as an "offensive" interpretation of Chinese culture. A month after the dragon was unveiled, someone knocked off chunks of the dragon's head and a public meeting about the dragon drew 300 people. Eventually, Goldbloom and the Arts Council decided to remove the dragon and put the project on hold while both the artist and the PDC reevaluated their roles and intentions in the neighborhood.
Finally, the assorted committees signed off on a new design: a sculpture of non-controversial Chinese artifacts like a hand drum and fireworks. This week, empty dragon space became a lantern like the other planned eight:
Right before he tightened the ropes hoist a lantern into place via crane, I asked Goldbloom if he felt frustrated that his first vision for the project was declared a divisive failure. "Public art and Fine art with a capital F are two different things," he explained, "I think of public art as an applied art - in other words, you're not totally free to do whatever you want to do... it's a different game and there are frustrations and after a project like this, you know, you're thinking, 'I never want to do this again.' But then, never say never."
This week, Goldbloom's crew is installing two of the last four street sconces. The piece above is meant to manifest the history of the Royal Palm hotel on the corner, which was owned by a Japanese family before they were sent to an internment camp in WWII when it became housing for African-American workers. There are lights in the base that come on at night as well as the image of a broken tea cup and a porter hat. Goldbloom's coming back in the fall to install the last two, and in the meantime the festival street will remain lined with two of these perky placeholders it's had for years: