The Other Columbus: When public art isn't so public after all

Scott Woods
A mural based on Aminah Robinson work painted on the side of a State Auto Insurance Company storage space was recently torn down.

There is no logical reason why anyone should feel bad that the Aminah Robinson mural on the side of a State Auto Insurance Company storage space Downtown was torn down.

For one, it isn’t an Aminah Robinson work of art; it was an homage organized in 2005 by artist Kristine Schramer and painted by Columbus College of Art and Design students. If people want to see the work the mural is based on, they can cross the street and see it at the Columbus Museum of Art.

The mural depiction of Robinson’s “A Street Called Home” is only “public art” in so much as it can be seen by the public. That the work is a go-to icon for civic brochures, high-end campaigns and news stories touting Columbus’ virtues as a real city doesn’t change the fact that it has been sitting on private property for the last 14 years.

And yet, holding all of that information in my head, I stood on the other side of a temporary chain-link fence feeling some kind of way, looking up at a wall I have looked a hundred times for bricks that were no longer there. Whatever stories weaved between Robinson’s red and pink rendering of Mt. Vernon School and a Technicolor riff on the old Dunbar Theater had been silenced, a neighborhood spilling over with painted citizens now beheaded by the gullet of a shovel truck and progress. I missed those stories the first time because I was too young to live them, but I missed them again because now I could not speak to it, out there in open air, not far from where such people lived and played and loved. The line had gone dead.

The cognitive dissonance of seeing something large and seemingly permanent disappear before your eyes can be disorienting, but when you have ascribed personal and communal value to it, the sensation is overwhelming. I felt some kind of way about the dismantling of the work because art does not derive its value solely from logical considerations, and public art even less so.

Knowing the mural was owned by State Auto Insurance doesn’t mean it belonged to them in every way a public offering can be embraced. And yet, “offering” is clearly the wrong word. The mural was not a gift to the Columbus community. It was a work for hire that Columbus happened to see.

There is something paradoxical about the demolition of a mural depicting the people and culture of an area made nearly extinct by gentrification a couple of generations before, like a Lascaux cave painting of a once vibrant community being blasted out to make room for Montignac’s newest Starbucks. Not that State Auto Insurance’s housecleaning has such aspirations. That the work is being torn down for better parking adds another level of irony, considering it is one of two key reminders of black Columbus history — and black art specifically — within a single block. The Elijah Pierce statue on Long Street sits almost where his storied barbershop stood, filled to the brim with his historic and coveted wood carvings, a building demolished to also make room for more parking. You could stand on Washington Avenue behind the art museum and see both monuments at the same time. Well, until a couple of days ago, that is.

The notion of space and public art’s way of transmitting certain values and inspirations is important here. Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals inspired Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Federal Arts project, which in turn changed the face of the country in innumerable ways. Public art has a power that art secreted away in galleries and museums does not. Such work is imbued with the potential for social and political capital, like a reactor of inspiration that, depending on who is smashing the atoms, can generate great ideas or merely entertain. To drive the engine of a cultural place, space must be made for such work to exist. And because of the power such space creates, care must be taken in how such space is maintained.

The unceremonious destruction of the Robinson homage by State Auto insurance may be completely legal and well within their rights to do, but such decisions belie other motives and agendas and, perhaps, a long misapplied value on behalf of the community affected by its removal. It is dangerous to care about history in a city that has no stomach for it, whose idea of preservation is a plaque or a hip video.

All art is a statement, and public art even more so. The destruction of such work is also a statement. The question now is, what do these recurring statements say about what it means to live in Columbus?

Institutions always give grandiloquent speeches about what it means when they unveil public art, but none for when they destroy it. When work is new, it is a cause for celebration and cheese plates. When it is removed, it is all silence, maybe a prepared statement after the fact.

When murals on Long Street painted by Jeff Abraxas were torn down there was communal outcry, but not institutional outcry. He was not an approved artist, a listed artist, an artist with access to the system. There is lots of access now for the artist with a little hustle game, but when Abraxas was coming up (which was not that long ago, mind you) such access was reserved and siloed from most local artists. Black artists had to die to get into our museums twenty years ago, and when Abraxas died he still wasn’t held up by cultural institutions. He was, however, held up by the people who engaged his art, who took pictures of themselves for news stories in front of his work, and tourists and neighbors who would gaze upon the enormous painted faces of Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson on their way into the white darkness of their workdays of a well-meaning Downtown. The surrounding community — which had not commissioned or paid Abraxas for the work — felt displaced, ignored and under attack.

The feelings are not unlike the ones expressed by people now about the Robinson homage. Whatever social contract may have existed between Columbus and the mural was rent, but to interrogate the contract beyond the level of dismay is to question whether such a contract existed in the first place.