Scott Woods: A New Public Artwork Looks Stunning. But Buying Culture Doesn’t Make It Yours

Columbus also needs to spend more on the people long invested in the city’s artistic success.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
Artist Janet Echelman will install a sculpture in Columbus in a similar style as her sculpture shown here in Montreal.

Come June, you’ll be able to walk down North High Street and see a massive fabric sculpture, measuring almost 230 feet, designed by world-renowned artist Janet Echelman. And of course, like any piece of public art, there are some who love it, and some who hate it. And because we’re Columbus, the hate comes with a sprinkle of boozy uncle-speak about what art is.

Public art is a big topic with me, but I don’t have a problem with this sculpture. It’s privately funded, so taxpayers aren’t on the hook for it (at least for now; see the Goodale Park public fountain debacle). It adds flair to our aesthetically underwhelming Downtown. It’s made of fabric that won’t snag birds. It’s an Echelman piece, which means it’s likely to be stunning. So if you’re thinking, “That could have been affordable housing,” or of some other social ill tonic that the funding of this could be addressing, this may not be the most relevant example.

My problem with this is the framing. In a recent Columbus Dispatch article, there is all this talk about how it will become a cultural centerpiece, or, as Mayor Andy Ginther puts it, “It’s going to be a defining image for our Downtown and put Columbus on the map as a community that cares about—and invests in—transformational public art.” Or when he refers to the transformation of Gay and High as “the nexus of culture in Columbus.” Or when Columbus Museum of Art board president Pete Scantland refers to the buyer, developer Jeff Edward, and his “determination to further affirm our city as a destination for world-class art.” Or when the artist herself speaks on being inspired by the “exceptional cooperation to achieve this public goal and came to understand firsthand what is nationally referred to as the Columbus Way.” Or from Edwards himself, referring to the sculpture as “the North Star for Columbus’ new culture-centric compass.”

As one of many culture keepers in this town for a while now, this is a pretty self-hating marketing campaign.

By all means, be happy that you’re getting some attention-grabbing art and on someone else’s dime. Get pumped for all of the social media photos of people posing under this impressive sculpture. It sure beats all of the pics people took of a Christopher Columbus statue on a flatbed being carted away to art jail. But don’t ever disrespect the hard work that people have been putting in on the ground to make your city worth visiting for generations. 

Import whatever you want. Just know that a receipt doesn’t make something part of your city’s culture. Curators and artists and art business owners do that. Trying to buy your way to coolness just makes you the British Museum. It makes you a collector of culture but without identity, without originality, without activating the genuine culture that's already here. Columbus may house culture, but it ain’t known for it. The reason that’s true is because of its longstanding campaign of cultural disinvestment. The Greater Columbus Arts Council has recently been touting a pool of artist grant funding at $945,426 for the first three grant cycles of 2023. That money is then spread out over 590 artists in every discipline you can name. It’s both a record number of awardees and a record amount given in that amount of time. The individual grants cap out at $1,700 per artist, which is an increase from what they’ve given in the past. That sounds like a lot of money until you consider the amount of money the arts generate in this town. Per GCAC’s website, as of 2017, arts nonprofits and cultural organizations generate $412 million annually, employ almost 15,000 people and attract 6 million people to events. The numbers only go up from there the more you spread Columbus’ effect through the greater area and county, and that was 6 years ago. But your favorite local artist got, maybe, $1,700. We get a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what the arts generate and then debate why culture building can’t get any traction in this town. In short, don’t go around talking about how amazing the culture you’re going to buy is as you spend pennies on the people long-invested in the city’s success.

Scott Woods

Numbers on the Echelman piece have not been publicly shared, but her track record suggests the price tag is well over $1 million. The installation of that sculpture will be more than $1 million. If you want to argue about what that kind of money should have been used for, consider what kind of locally sourced culture you would be able to lay claim to if you gave 10 amazing artists $100,000. Ultimately, like so many other efforts, the leadership of the city bypasses genuine levels of support for the culture we already have for shortcuts to acclaim.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.