Interview: Mary Beebe on Public Art
by Claire Ruud
Mary Beebe is the Director of the Stuart Collection, the site-specific art collection at the University of California, San Diego. She’s been there since the program’s inception in 1981. Ever since The University of Texas at Austin started its own public art program, Landmarks, last year, I’ve been dying to pick Beebe’s brain about running these types of programs on university campuses. In October, Beebe was in Austin and I finally had the chance.
…might be good (mbg): Tell me about the logistics of running the Stuart Collection.
Mary Beebe (MB): We have an advisory board that meets every 2 to 3 years, every time we start a new project: Richard Atkinson, Hugh Davies, Patricia Fuller, Robert Irwin, Joan Jacobs, Kim MacConnel, Ann Philbin, Rob Storr, John Walsh, and Ann d’Harnoncourt, before she died. The board consists almost entirely of art professionals, and they recommend artists for consideration. Sometimes, I choose to think about other artists they haven’t recommended, too. Once we’ve selected an artist, we bring the artist to campus and look around for sites that might be of interest to them for their work.
Now, it’s obviously really important to know the long term plans of the University so that I don’t set an artist in conflict with a parking structure or something. Some battles aren’t worth getting into. I know the University isn’t a museum with museum priorities. So, I do a certain amount of pre-proposal clearance with the powers that be to make sure this particular territory isn’t planned for anything.
Then we present the proposal—we pay the artist 10K and expenses for the proposal. The proposals go to the advisory board, and they judge on artistic merit. Then I have to get things through the channels at the University. Supposedly, I don’t have to get approval from the community, though the chancellor gives final approval. But the campus community planning committee and the others in the academic senate all want to have their say. I have to build a constituency, although no one ever told me I had to. But obviously it’s advisable to build a constituency for the works we are considering. That way I don’t run afoul of anyone.
mbg: So let’s put this abstract process into practical terms. Tell me about the current project in the works, Do-Ho Suh’s Falling Star.
MB: Do-Ho came to campus and he had a couple of ideas. One was a garden on a flat bed truck that looked that it had been parked permanently, with a little house in the garden. The other one, the one we eventually chose, was a house that looked like it had been picked up by a tornado-like force and crashed into a building. For at least a year we went looking all around campus for buildings. The best one, we thought, was the one of the earliest building on campus, a really ugly old building, seven stories tall, huge and filled with labs. We thought we had it all figured out.
It was important to Do-Ho that people be able to go into the house and look out from it, and it turned out the scientists in the building had a number of security concerns. They have animals in their labs, so they didn’t want the public to have access to those labs and they thought security would be too complicated. Also, the labs have these chemical wash mechanisms you can pull in an emergency so that some kind of water or chemical de-activator will come down. In the past, they have had trouble with people pulling these mechanisms before a weekend or something and flooding the place. We thought we could address their security concerns, but they were still not convinced.
The chancellor said we had to find a new building, so we started again. Now, we have an engineering building, and we have gotten all the okays we needed. The engineering building is also seven stories high, and it turns out that it’s got these sections of the building that jut out so that you will be able to take the elevator all the way up to the seventh floor, where we will put a door through this glass wall onto the roof of one of these sections. You will then be able to walk through a garden—this kind of combines Do-Ho’s two ideas—and into this house that is perched on the edge and slightly tilted, as if its landing, almost. The house will be one room, furnished, about fifteen by eighteen feet. It might have a TV inside that would be on at night so that, from the outside, you could see the shadowy light flickering through its windows. We haven’t gotten all the details worked out. We do have the engineering worked out, as well as the drainage for the roof garden. Now it’s just up to me to raise the money. I have over half of it, but it’s a hard time to be raising money. I have no idea how long it will take me but I’m determined, and hopeful, that we will get the money before spring of next year. As soon as we have the money we will move forward.
mbg: You’ve been director of the Stuart Collection since the program’s inception in 1981. Did you craft the program’s structure?
MB: No, James Stuart DeSilva and his wife lived near the University. He had made a lot of money in the tuna business, and they had filled up their house with their art collection and didn’t really want to keep buying. But they often walked and bicycled around the campus, and they came up with the idea that it would be great to commission work for the campus. So he talked to a lot of people and worked out a deal. He set up the advisory committee and then he got the University to buy in. So the University pays my salary and that of an assistant as well as some maintenance money, and they give us offices on campus. Then I raise all the money to do the projects.
Because James worked out the deal with the University, he was on the advisory board in the very beginning, along with Jim Demetrion from Des Moines, Pontus Hulten, and Pierre Restany—the later two have since died. I was running a contemporary space in Portland, Oregon, and they called me up. We had shown David [Antin] and Ellie [Eleanor Antin]. We had Allan Kaprow do a happening. We had a small show with Nauman. So those guys knew me. Jim, bless his heart, said to Patterson Sims, who was a curator at the Whitney at the time, who should we ask that hasn’t applied? And Patterson said Mary Beebe. So I got talked into coming down to meet with them and I talked to Jim and I met Pat Ledden, the Associate Chancellor at the University who was sort of the “guardian angel” of the project, and I really liked them. I though, whoa, this is a job where there is no excuse for failure, so I up ended my life and came down. I had some guilt about leaving the PCVA, but we had done a lot of great stuff and it was really a hand-to-mouth operation; I would hold back my salary to make sure everybody else got paid. The idea of regular salary and benefits, along with meeting Jim and Pat, was really nice. So that’s how I landed there in October of 1981.
mbg: It sounds like “public art” was not part of your background.
MB: Not really, no. But I had worked with a lot of the same artists in Portland and that’s what I liked, working with the artists. At first, the Stuart Collection was talking about focusing on the history of sculpture. I didn’t want to be a curator in that way; I didn’t want to just go around and buy things, I wanted to work with the artist. When the collection began, a lot of artists were thinking about site related, site specific, site generated work and I said, let’s go with that. If you hire me, this is what I want to do.
mbg: In Austin, The University of Texas started its own public art program, Landmarks, fairly recently. I get the impression from that program that it’s rather difficult to push cutting-edge art projects through a cumbersome university administration. Art and artists just aren’t the priority, and the massive bureaucracy of a university seems to create a culture of conservatism. How were you able to create a program that would support emerging rather than established artists, experimental projects rather than massive modernist sculptures?
MB: We choose an artist based on their work rather than a particular expectation about public art. Many of the artists haven’t done public work before, and Mathieu Gregoire, who works with me, is really good at figuring out how to execute ideas. He’s an artist himself and very smart. He figures out how to make trees talk or works with the engineers to figure out how to make everything earthquake proof—the technical end of things.
mbg: Have you met with resistance to the experimental nature of the projects?
MB: This was the brilliancy of setting up the advisory board. When the professors, neighbors or whoever says to the chancellor, “how can you call this art,” he – or she - can say, “I don’t know if its art or not, but I have this committee of recognized professionals in the field who have spent their life thinking about this, and they say it’s art.” So it’s not a popularity contest when we choose the work.
In fact, many people’s opinions about the work change over time. I could tell many stories about this, one story is about the Terry Allen piece, Trees (1986). The University has this eucalyptus grove running through it. Many of the trees were cut down to build new buildings. Terry took two “downed” trees, we had them creosoted, he covered them with lead and “replanted” them in the grove with the other trees. Terry invited artists, singers and musicians to contribute music for one tree, and writers to contribute poems and stories for the other tree. And these trees play 24/7 in the grove; there is some silence in between pieces, so you don’t always hear them and the gray lead resembles the bark of the eucalyptus so you don’t always notice them also.
In addition to these two trees, there is the silent tree that’s in front of the library. The library had a huge addition put on in the early nineties, and we removed the tree during construction. After construction, we brought Terry back to decide where we should place the tree and after we decided, I had lunch with the new head librarian and told him that we would be putting the silent tree back in. He said, “well we decided to nix that.” Well, he didn’t have the power to nix the tree. But it wasn’t in my interest to say, “you don’t have the power to do that.” So I just took a deep breath and went into my spiel. At the end, I had him convinced, but he said I would need to convince the deans. I asked him to arrange a meeting and he did. At the meeting the deans said, “it’s an ugly dead tree, and everybody is going to think it’s ugly.” I tried to convince them that ugly was in the eye of the beholder; there are a lot of ways you can think about this tree. You can think about it as a tree of silence, as a tree of dance, of knowledge. But they kept insisting that all it was, was an ugly dead tree. They tried to say it was a fire hazard, even though I told them we had checked with the fire department and it was okay to put it there. I even said it could be thought of as a tree to commemorate all the trees that have been cut down to make books. This gave them a little pause but not much.
Finally I said, listen, our job at the university is to expand definitions and to think of all the different ways that you can think about things. Sometimes it’s all about how you describe something that makes the difference. If you invited someone to your house for roast chicken or Thanksgiving turkey, you would get an entirely different response that if you invited them over for dead bird. And at that point, the dean of arts and humanities threw up his hands and said “I can think of no reasonable objection for that.” And of course there was none, so they said we could put it in for a year, and then we got them to agree to two. Once it was installed, the chancellor thought it looked great, most people thought it looked great, and I never heard from them again. But I learned that you never get angry; you just be persistent, and people respond to that.
mbg: What kind of interaction do the students on UCSD campus have with the work in the Collection?
MB: Students in Theatre and Dance use the pieces as settings for projects sometimes. One class did one-minute performances at each of the Stuart works, and each performance was supposed to relate to the work. A graduate student did an opera performance that involved some of the pieces, so they do get tied into various events. Students have done lots of things to the Sun God [Niki de Saint Phalle, 1983]. It’s gotten a cap and gown for graduation, a black sheath for “A Day Without Art,” headphones and a little box that said “Sony WalkBird.” It got a huge penis one spring day. A guy from the newspaper called me and said “have you seen the Sun God?” I said I had, and he said “Are you waiting for help from the school of medicine to take that down?” I said, “Some students went to a lot of work to put that up! I think we will leave it there for awhile. Would you like to put a picture in your newspaper?” He said no, though, it was a family newspaper.
mbg: When you started at the Stuart Collection, were they many public art programs in universities?
MB: There were some: the University of Washington, Princeton. MIT has a good program that Patricia Fuller runs.
mbg: What about now, are more universities starting public art programs?
MB: Oh yes. I get asked to go talk to people at different places all the time. Wash U is looking for something, also Rice.
mbg: Do you perceive a change in how universities are understanding their relationship to public art?
MB: I hope so. I think they are beginning to understand its advantages, and that it can bring discussion as well as attention to their campus. But these programs make everybody nervous, too, because the universities want to talk about art and beauty, but then when artists start working, the universities say, “Whoa! That’s not what I had in mind.” It’s like what happened in the city of Chicago. Mayor Daly said, “we are going to get this Picasso no matter what anybody things about it.” And people protested, but now the sculpture is their big pride and it’s been made an honorary citizen. The history of public art is: when it’s good, people come around.
Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.