Words by : Tara Kosloski
The greatest thing about art in the public sphere is that there is no cost, and little effort for anyone to experience something great. Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor is—quite literally—the shining example of this phenomenon. Tourists, and even native Chicagoans, flock to it, and seemingly worship at its glistening contours. One must wonder what percentage of those visitors also are planning to visit The Art Institute, MCA, the Cultural Center, or one of the hundreds of fantastic galleries Chicago has to offer.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but public art should stand a conduit for all individuals to have a meaningful interacting with artwork—regardless if they have a prior interest in art. Maybe they have never step foot in a museum or gallery, but hey, after having a good time at “The Bean” perhaps it will entice them to explore a sculpture exhibition or Google “artists who work with metal” in the future. If public art helps cultivate a conversation or appreciation about art, shouldn’t there be a serious push to include artwork in all public spaces?
The Arts Initiative certainly thinks so. Founded by AWE Talisman Chairman Arthur Weiner and curated by Miami-based collective Primary Projects, The Arts Initiative was recently formed to represent “the future of highly interactive visual art in public venues: artist-driven ideas actively integrated into the architectural framework and viewing space.” The $250 million luxury outlet mall, Fashion Outlets of Chicago, serves as The Arts Initiative’s very first arena. Eventually, the organization plans “to bring museum-quality contemporary art into public spaces such as malls, airports, and libraries to turn these function-oriented properties into vessels for creativity, commentary, and cultural change.”
The decision to install artwork in shopping malls is not exactly a new endeavor. The Aventura Mall in Aventura, Florida boosts works by Jorge Pardo, Lawrence Weiner, and Gary Hume, to just name a few. NorthPark Center in Dallas features a massive Mark di Suvero, as well as sculptures by Jim Dine, and Antony Gormley. Let us not forget about the Mecca of art in a commercial venue—the Dallas Cowboys stadium. There, the Jones family essentially created their own contemporary art museum by displaying 46 works, of those 14 were commissions, by the likes of Jenny Holzer, Olafur Eliasson, Matthew Ritchie, and Daniel Buren.
The Arts Initiative, however, seems to push this idea further. Rather than having sculptures or murals sporadically plopped in the new mall’s giant space, their projects are more expansive, unexpectedly integrated into the space, and their mission is well-defined. Featured at The Fashion Outlets are 11 established and up-and-coming contemporary artists from across the country including: Jen Stark, Friends With You, Cody Hudson, Bert Rodriguez, Alvaro Ilizarbe, Andrew Nigon, Kenton Parker, Austyn Weiner, Jim Drain, Daniel Arsham, and Bhakti Baxter. The work represented is in a diverse range of media from photography to sculpture, painting to installation.
The most effective pieces are those installed at the entrances to the mall. Daniel Arsham’s surreal, architectural pieces are subtle, but surprising. Walls are altered to appear as though they are fluid; one is literally dripping. Another includes a figure emerging through the ceiling, seemingly trapped in liquid plaster. Alvaro Ilizarbe’s hand-painted black and white, eye-popping mural encapsulates an entire mall entrance and extends into the space via the ceiling. Jim Drain’s entryway has visitors first walk through a completely red vestibule with a rake dangling overhead, only to shock their sense with a Day-Glo pink and yellow checkerboard complete with cartoon snakes as they move into the mall. Visitors not keen on exploring the artwork at the Fashion Outlets are unable to ignore it. This is the genius of The Arts Initiative. Here to shop til’ you drop? Fine, but you have to check out this installation first.
Other works are whimsical and inviting, including Friends With You’s massive mobile, a collection of neon shapes with smiling faces, and Jen Stark’s layered, rainbow mural on the underside of a set of escalators. Some are humorous, like Kenton Parker’s life-sized series of self portraits, which picture the artist in various poses in succession along the wall near the bathrooms. Those running to use the facilities will be treated to a flip-book style mini-film, as the images streak by their periphery. Works are evenly distributed throughout the huge space, which allows shoppers to experience new pieces as they move from store to store.