Another art project, another kerfuffle

In a remarkable blend of form and function, Ashland’s newest public art installation does exactly what it was supposed to do while enhancing an otherwise drab corridor and stairway.

The new artwork evokes a ball bouncing down the stairs from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Thomas Theatre and city parking on Hargadine Street to East Main Street. The Theater Corridor runs between the buildings housing Starbucks and Earthly Goods.

Titled “Velocity,” the installation is the work of Napa, California-based artist Gordon Huether, who was awarded the contract by the city’s Public Arts Commission. The money for the work comes from a small portion of the city’s transient occupancy tax paid by people who stay in hotels and motels, set aside for public art projects.

The installation had to comply with strict limitations and requirements, making it especially challenging, Huether said.

Because the buildings flanking the corridor are privately owned, the work could not touch them. It also could not obstruct the stairway, and was required to emit light to illuminate the corridor at night.

The result is dramatic, yet simple. A 126-foot-long aluminum tube, ending in a 48-inch lighted sphere, is anchored in the concrete at each “bounce” point, centered on the stairway. LED lights every four feet along the curved tube illuminate the corridor, and can be programmed to change color and pattern.

The light makes the corridor safer at night, while drawing people in who may not even have been aware that the corridor was there.

All of this for a budget of $110,000 strikes us as a bargain, but of course there are those who object to the expense and question the wisdom of taxpayer-funded art of any kind.

Public art installations will never please everyone, because people’s tastes differ. That reality was made very clear in the uproar over the sculpture installed on the Gateway Island across from the city fire station at East Main Street and Siskiyou Boulevard.

These projects always seem to come as a surprise to some in the community, despite a public process designed to encourage residents to participate, and coverage in the newspaper. Comments on social media after the dedication of “Velocity” on Wednesday variously described “Velocity” as “another awkward, second-rate piece,” a “meaningless monstrosity” and “elitist” because a local artist was not selected, despite a three-year process involving local artists and others.

We happen to like “Velocity,” and consider it money well spent.

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