Ames’ Other (Somewhat) Recent Sculpture Controversy

Ames Circle of Arts, a sculpture by Rhode Island artist Bill Culbertson in Bandshell Park. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

After a handful of complaints and an ensuing email discussion, the city’s Public Art Commission has decided against removing Wide Open Mind, a bronze sculpture of a nude female figure on the corner of Douglas and Main in downtown Ames.

In one of the emails obtained by the Informer through a public records request, the commission’s chair, Kerry Dixon, mentioned a previous sculpture controversy in a response to Heather Johnson, executive director of the Octagon Center for the Arts and PAC vice president, who suggested Wide Open Mind‘s artist had “misrepresented her sculpture” in an application for the annual exhibition (emphasis ours):

I’m kind of in agreement with you. I like the piece, but would it have been selected had the front side been represented, that could be a question for the Jury. I’m a little concerned about second guessing the Jury and what that says to the art community about our process.

Art is supposed to stimulate discussion and I wonder if people still get upset about the piece in Bandshell park, that one is more anatomically correct that this piece is. I would hate to remove the piece if we are dealing with a small group of people, but the general reaction is not pushing it. it goes back to the whole basis of what art is supposed to do.

To be honest, I’ve not seen any discussion on the hotbed of Ames gossip [on Facebook], Ames People. There’s been more discussion of the bike family [a sculpture along Duff Avenue just north of the railroad tracks] than anything I’ve seen in a while…..

Dixon was referring to Ames Circle of Arts, a piece by Rhode Island artist Bill Culberton in downtown’s Bandshell Park featuring a sculpture of a woman surrounded by five archways, each displaying a bronze medallion representing one of the arts. As Culbertson has explained:

Located in Ames, Iowa, this project was funded through private donations to the Ames Public Art Committee. The monument is a tribute to the Arts (Musical Arts, Literary Arts, Dramatic Arts, Fine Arts and Athletic Arts). In the center of the circle is an allegorical figure, “Creativity.” She holds the seed of creativity as a source for growth of the arts in our world.

Creativity is clothed, but in 2001 Culbertson submitted two preliminary designs to the city, one of them nude. After the city’s Parks and Rec Department approved the nude version, a couple residents complained.

The Iowa State Daily reported about them at the time:

Bob Kindred, assistant city manager and liaison to the Public Arts Commission, said he has received several e-mail messages and phone calls regarding the statue, and the artist is willing to listen to the needs of the Ames community.

The commission hosted an open house Jan. 11 at the Ames Public Library for residents to preview the sculpture. Nearly 200 were invited, Carroll said, but only about a half-dozen came, and only two made comments about having the statue clothed.

Barb Gauger of Ames said people go to Bandshell Park to go to concerts, not to see art.

“I don’t like to see statues without anything on. It would embarrass a person,” she said. “I do not want the statue there. I would like to have one with something on, please.”

Ames resident Jennifer Rohrssen said she does not want to see the statue in the Park.

“I would prefer to have it clothed,” she said. “There’s going to be traffic in there, especially in the summer — people playing, kids playing, concerts.”

Rohrssen said she does not think clothing the statue will take away from its artistic value.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached to go with a clothed version of the sculpture, which remains in Bandshell Park to this day.

In the email discussion regarding the complaints this year about Wide Open Mind, Kindred — who is still the commission’s city staff liaison — told Johnson, Dixon, and Sarah Buss — Ames Chamber of Commerce’s director of sponsorship and membership programming and former chair of the PAC, who suggested removing the sculpture — said that the commission could convene a public meeting and make a recommendation to the City Council that it be taken down. (Kindred himself did not take a position but explained both the importance of artistic expression and ensuring that future applications were more fully representative of the works.)

“The artist would keep the $1000 honorarium, which has already been paid,” Kindred explained. “The contract reserves to the City the right to remove the sculpture from display for any reason (see Sections V and IX). The artwork could either be stored until next spring, or could be returned to the sculptor immediately.

“By way of historical precedent,” he added, “during the very first year of Art Around the Corner a sculpture by a U of I student was selected that looked terrific in the photos. Upon delivery and installation, however, it was judged to be unsafe and unsuitable for public display. The artist came back and collected the sculpture, and it was not part of that year’s exhibition.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.