Fulton County public art project hamstrung by competing visions

The proposed artwork will go on the round wall on the outside of the Fulton County Government Center. AJC FILE

The proposed artwork will go on the round wall on the outside of the Fulton County Government Center. AJC FILE

A unanimous proposal to bring public art outside the Fulton County Government Center has hit a snag, as county commissioners questioned the merit of the piece that was selected.

The county is currently remodeling its atrium and outdoor area. The selected piece, interconnected steel hexagons along an outdoor wall on Pryor Street in Atlanta, is meant to create a destination piece that will bring people downtown.

But this fall, county commissioners questioned the artwork’s design, saying they didn’t think the abstract piece had a direct relationship to Fulton County. Nearly three months after county leaders decided to go back to the drawing board, no progress has been made to modify the original piece or select a new artist.

“It needs to be reflective of the county in an obvious way,” Commissioner Liz Hausmann said. “I think it can incorporate art and a message. I’d like to see some clearer options.”

Four finalists were chosen for the $35,000 commission, from a total of 18 applicants. The artists’ submissions went through a preselection panel that looked at cost, longevity and maintenance requirements and other criteria. Of the original 18, the four finalists were given $500 each to create renderings of their proposals that they could then present to a committee.

The 10-person group that vetted the finalists included the county manager, chief financial officer and chief operating officer as well as three representatives from the department of Arts and Culture and two arts consultants. They unanimously selected Interconnections, a steel piece by Allen Peterson that includes a beehive pattern intercut by curving lines. That decision was then confirmed by the county’s Arts Council.

Lionell Thomas, the Arts and Culture director, said the top choice was “pretty clear.” The other three options incorporated leaf patterns or artificial turf, a grid of the Atlanta skyline with aluminum flowers or a computer-generated abstraction of the Chattahoochee River.

“It could be a destination piece, a gateway piece,” Thomas said. “That’s a piece that defines Fulton County.”

Emmitt Stevenson, the deputy director, said he thought the art would drive tourism and galvanize people to visit the building, much like Cloud Gate — a steel sculpture commonly known as the Bean — does in Chicago.

“People would gravitate to Fulton County because of that artwork,” he said of Interconnections.

Hausmann and another commissioner, Natalie Hall, disagreed. After an Oct. 2 presentation about the building upgrades included a picture of the proposed artwork, they asked Thomas to come back with all the finalists that had been considered. Later that month, after seeing all four, they asked if there were any other options — perhaps a proposal that included a map of the county?

“I hate to say start over, but I kind of think we should expand a little bit and at least have an idea of what the other proposals would’ve tried to represent,” Hausmann said in the meeting. “Perhaps we start all over completely.”

Hall said seeing the four finalists “piqued my curiosity to actually see more” presentations that might be “a little more of what we need.” She didn’t respond to phone calls seeking additional comment.

The county’s public art program began in 1993, and Thomas and Stevenson said they weren’t aware of any project since that time that had sidestepped the normal committee process. Thomas said he hoped to have meetings with the commissioners to determine what should happen next, but that the timing had been difficult.

“This can go on forever and a day, trying to get folks to agree about art,” Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said in October.

Jessica Corbitt, a county spokesperson who was also involved in the art selection, said members of the public often get a say in art that goes in their neighborhoods. The commissioners weren’t included as stakeholders originally, but they should also get a chance to weigh in, she said.

“I think that’s my job,” Hausmann said. “Our image is important. …This is our front door.”

Peterson, the artist, said he had simply been told that there was a delay in the process. He said he thought the piece would command attention, and had imagined that people would take selfies in front of it, posting them on social media with #FultonCounty.

But he said he was open to modifying the design to make sure everyone was satisfied — after all, the piece is not about him, it’s about the county.

“If we’re not all on board, let’s talk about it some more,” he said. “That’s part of the process.”