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Editorial: Sculpture collection needs better presentation

Issue date: 10/17/08 Section: Opinion
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Students at Case Western Reserve University have made a hobby of coming up with amusing names for the many abstract statues located across campus. Almost any student can point a visitor toward the ugly helicopter statue, the wet/dry fountain, or the titanic and iceberg. But ask a student where one can find David E. Davis' Start, Athena Tacha's Merging, or Philip Johnson's Turning Point Garden and you can practically depend on getting a confused stare.

Similarly, the installation of the Mildred Putnam Sculpture Garden next to the parking garage on Northside has garnered more skepticism from students than admiration. Our favorite potential nickname so far for Richard Fleischman's sculpture of tall, curving blue steel plates called Dancers is "the upside-down jellyfish." The installation of yet another abstract piece on campus has left many students wondering why Case Western Reserve University continues to spend money on strange statues when its budget is still deep in the red.

The administration, meanwhile, continues to leave students in the dark about the significance of the sculptures and why they shouldn't worry that their tuition money is going toward random campus art.

In fact, every single sculpture on campus - 47 in all - is part of the John and Mildred Andrews Putnam Sculpture Collection, which was born in 1980 with Gene Kangas' Snow Fence, located directly east of Thwing Center. A permanent endowment to support the collection was established in 1981 by Mildred Andrews Putnam.

There are two main stipulations of the endowment: it is to be used to acquire works by regional artists, and all works must be three-dimensional sculpture. According to the collection's website, its goal is "to enrich the visual and educational environment of the Case Western Reserve University campus and of University Circle by developing awareness and understanding of the variety and vitality of the work of our regional artists."

The part that's missing is the "awareness and understanding." It's pretty apparent that students don't understand the artistic value of the collection, which is why we recommend that the next chunk of income from the endowment be used for museum plaques. If mounted prominently, plaques bearing each piece's title, artist, date, medium, and meaning or significance would establish the collection as art and not merely weird statues. We could have a campus-wide public art museum rather than a property littered with abstract, incomprehensible sculpture.

Furthermore, the location of sculptures with functional appeal - such as the small amphitheater that is part of the new sculpture garden at E. 188th and Euclid - should be carefully considered. The site for the garden was chosen for its importance as the eastern gateway to the university, which by definition means it stands at the very edge of the campus. However, students would have had more appreciation for the amphitheater had it been located in a more central location.

The almost 30-year-old collection is a fabulous way to support local artists and engage the community, not to mention beautify our campus. Unfortunately, the way in which the art is presented fails to fulfill the goal of the collection and places an upper limit on students' appreciation for the artwork that comprises it.
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