Top Stories of 2011: #5 - Public Art's Struggle: Bench's construction, destruction fuels debate
PRESCOTT - A community debate over public art stormed back onto center stage in 2011, when a Prescott College student created a decorative bench in Granite Creek Park.
For weeks in the early fall, supporters and critics of the mosaic-covered bench argued on the Daily Courier's online comments and on local radio programs about the merits of the project.
Reminiscent of the 2010 furor over a mural at Miller Valley Elementary School, the bench controversy renewed the discussion about what constitutes public art in Prescott.
While the bench came to an abrupt end when the Prescott Parks and Recreation Department removed it in the early-morning hours of Oct. 25, the discussion has continued.
Kristen Anthony, the Prescott College student who created the bench, said all along that the goal of her senior project was to bring the community together.
Early on, she encouraged local residents to take part in the project, and many participated by designing tiles that were incorporated into the mosaic design.
It was the intricacies of the design that appeared to cause the most concerns for city officials. Former Parks and Recreation Director Debbie Horton and then-acting Parks and Recreation Director Joe Baynes both maintained that the designs would be difficult to preserve in the future.
"This is beyond our ability to maintain," Horton said in mid-October, adding that the design should be less complicated. "The plainer, the better," she said.
Along with maintenance issues, Baynes also questioned the functionality and safety of the bench.
Despite those concerns, however, many in the community suspected the city's real concerns centered on the religious symbolism in some of the tiles.
Officials met with Anthony several times in early October to discuss possible revisions to the bench. In the days leading up to the city's removal of the bench, videos of some of those discussions were posted on YouTube, helping to fuel the debate.
Meanwhile, the bench also was generating public demonstrations. Granite Creek Park was the site of numerous public gatherings, and several dozen sign-carrying advocates showed up at an Oct. 18 Prescott City Council meeting to show their support.
The matter came to a head on Friday, Oct. 21, when Anthony met with Horton to try to work out a compromise. Afterward, both sides appeared to agree with a plan to remove the individualized designs and replace them with a more generic mosaic pattern.
Immediately after that meeting, Anthony told the media that she saw the compromise as a way to save the bench.
But she later said she felt bullied into the plan to remove the original mosaics and tiles. "I felt so wrong about it," she said afterward. "It didn't feel right, but I didn't know what to do. I wanted to preserve the community's voice."
That weekend - facing a medical emergency with her father back in Massachusetts - Anthony opted to turn the bench decisions over to a new group, the Granite Creek Park Mosaic Bench Committee. That group met with Baynes on Monday, Oct. 24, and asked him to put into writing what needed to be done to make the bench acceptable to the city.
Baynes later said that the Monday discussion made it clear to him that the two sides were not going to come to a resolution.
It was early the next morning - Oct. 25 - that crews from the parks and recreation department demolished and removed the bench. Baynes said the work started at about 4 a.m.
By about 8:30 that morning, the city had issued a news release that stated: "With the city having been notified of the departure of Ms. Anthony, the withdrawal of the modified design submitted on Oct. 21, substantial variation between the original design sketch and what was built, and in the absence of any credible evidence that a structure meeting all city requirements will be achieved, the bench has been removed this date."
The action set off a community outcry, with dozens of people criticizing the city's decision to use the "cover of darkness" to remove the bench.
Baynes, who took responsibility for the bench-removal decision, said the early-morning work was the practical choice. "We were trying to get it done while the park was closed," he said.
Now, two months later, Anthony said she continues to have doubts about city operations. "The more I look at it, how can you not question how the city is being run?" she said in a recent telephone interview.
"Personally, my experience was, I was just kind of pushed around," Anthony said. "I would talk to one person, and then I would have to go to another person, and hear something different."
Although city officials have emphasized that the bench design did not follow the original plans that Anthony submitted, she said the sketch that the city has circulated was not the formal plan. Rather, she said it was a drawing that she did for a brochure for the neighborhood.
"I had brought that to the different schools," Anthony said of the sketch.
And she discounts the city claim that the bench design was going on unbeknownst to officials. After she got started on the bench, Anthony said, "They were monitoring us almost every day."
Mayor Marlin Kuykendall said he believes the bench removal was the result of frustration at the inability to come to a firm resolution.
"There were several agreements that had been agreed on, and they would fall apart the next day," Kuykendall said. "When the bench issue was unilaterally turned over to a committee...the frustration reached a point where there was no trust that any agreement would be fulfilled."
He added: "That led to the simple solution that the bench would be removed."
Throughout the resulting controversy, Kuykendall and other council members have vehemently denied any involvement in the decision - a declaration that was met with skepticism in the community.
Former Councilwoman Lora Lopas fueled that skepticism, when she resigned from the council on Oct. 25, after hearing of the bench removal.
In an emailed resignation letter, Lopas said, "It saddens me to feel I cannot complete the term, but I no longer can be a part of a council that chooses to not do their job of setting public policy, but rather micromanages details of the city on a daily basis."
But Kuykendall continued to deny any council involvement this past week. "Regardless of what people think - as a body, there was no involvement," he said. "I did not have the first conversation about the bench with our folks."
Although he allowed that council members Hanna and Steve Blair may have voiced their concerns about the bench on the radio, Kuykendall said, "Every council member has the right of free speech, just like anybody else."
Anthony calls the council members' assertion that they were not involved with the bench-removal decision "total baloney."
Despite the controversy, Anthony said she hopes the bench design will live on in Prescott. Kestrel High School has already committed to building a similar bench on its grounds, and other replicas are also in the works on private property around town, Anthony said.