Public art forum discusses campus placement of two new sculptures

If art imitates life, life just got a little more controversial.

The newly formed Public Art Committee held an open meeting on Wednesday, March 8, in the University Center’s Connan Room to discuss the locations of two new pieces of art: a bronze sculpture of alumnus Mao Yisheng, and the sculpture “Walking to the Sky” by alumnus Jonathan Borofsky. The latter piece has drummed up campus debate since the fall.

Dean of the College of Fine Arts (CFA) and chair of the Public Art Committee (PAC) Hilary Robinson led the forum. Robinson stressed that, as the PAC had already approved both pieces, the forum was merely to discuss where the sculptures would be installed on campus.

“Mao Yisheng”

Robinson first initiated discussion about the placement of “Mao Yisheng,” an 8½-foot bronze sculpture of the alumnus of that name. Yisheng, who was from China, was the first person to graduate with a PhD from then–Carnegie Tech, in 1920.

The final proposed siting for the sculpture is the second alcove of Baker Hall facing the Mall. The site would, according to Robinson, provide an “historic building as an appropriate backdrop.” Robinson recognized the area as an “informal pathway” that students traverse and noted the intent to keep it inviting for students. Two benches would flank the base of the sculpture, but the present trees standing in the alcove would remain.

Among other considered sites for the sculpture were the roof of the Adamson Wing on the side of Baker Hall facing Frew Street, the area in front of Scaife Hall, and in Schenley Park. That last site was quickly rejected because it would require the city’s approval, not being on the Carnegie Mellon campus.

In discussing the sculpture’s siting, audience members noted the limited visual space on the Mall and questioned the long-term plans for on-campus art. Robinson noted that, while the PAC does “not explicitly” have a long-term vision for public art on campus, it is “certainly not [their] intent to turn the campus into a sculpture park.”

“Obviously, the work of the Public Art Committee would have to take each and every piece of art on its own merit,” she said.

As Robinson provided two-dimensional diagrams of the aerial view of the space in a slideshow, attendees questioned the scale of the sculpture once it is placed on its base and requested a visual rendering of the sculpture in its proposed site.

“Walking to the Sky”

Closing the subject of “Mao Yisheng,” Robinson opened a more heated debate: the location of Jonathan Borofsky’s “Walking to the Sky.”

With a flurry of related comments on, Borofsky’s piece has met varied reactions from the campus community. During the week before spring break, flyers circulated around campus showing a rendering of the sculpture and encouraging people to attend the forum.

“Walking to the Sky” is a stainless-steel pole that stands at a 75-degree angle and includes seven life-size people walking up it toward the sky. Three more figures stand at the base of the pole, which is 20 inches in diameter.

Alumna and trustee Jill Gansman Kraus has donated the 100-foot-tall “Walking to the Sky” to Carnegie Mellon; the piece is to be permanently displayed on campus.

The original sculpture of the same name was temporarily on display at Rockefeller Center in New York City in the fall of 2004. The Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas bought the piece and now displays it permanently.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the one for Carnegie Mellon is currently being produced in Los Angeles.

At the forum, Robinson introduced the sculpture’s preferred site — on the Cut, just left of the tree on the south side of the sidewalk near Forbes Avenue outside Warner Hall.

“It’s far back enough from the road to allow for the development of a future gateway on campus,” Robinson said, “and it was felt that it let people onto the campus as well.”

Both Borofsky and the donor have contributed to the siting.

Other potential sites included the Cut, near the clock outside of Doherty Hall; the Hornbostel Mall, as depicted in renderings on the flyers; the Cut, near the tennis courts; and the area of the Cut behind the bus stop.

In initiating debate about the siting, Robinson noted the sculpture’s merits. “It talks about ambition, it talks about reaching for the sky — and I think that’s a great thing for this University,” she said.

“Is this item the first thing that shows up in every photograph [of campus], and is that the manifestation of our educational and social and environmental agendas?” asked Vivian Loftness, a professor in architecture. Loftness, who served on the Design Review Committee that initially discussed the sculpture and possible locations, expressed concern with placing the sculpture as an “axial statement” of campus.

“I think that has been the concern with the [siting] on the Mall — it takes over the imagery of the Mall. And I think in some respects that’s the same problem here — that [for the] view of campus from Forbes Avenue, this becomes the first and maybe the last statement in that view because it is such a large piece,” Loftness said.

Loftness’ reference to the Mall siting regards one of the original plans to place the sculpture at the top of the Mall, between Doherty and Baker Halls. Last fall, digging began on the site for placement of the sculpture, and a square concrete base was poured in the ground. When University officials created the Public Art Committee, however, they decided the new committee would reconsider the sculpture’s location.

“I do think the arts are not as visible on this campus as they ought to be, given their centrality to the history of the University,” said Judy Cole, director of Alumni Relations. “Personally I love the piece, and I love the site.”

Dan Boyarski, head of the design school, agreed. “I think [with] anything like this, once you’ve gotten used to it, you’ll pass by it,” he said.

Boyarski encouraged the sculpture as a chance to advance rather than to be stuck in the time of Henry Hornbostel, the campus’s original architect.

“This is our campus, this is our art, these are our buildings, this is our landscape. Let’s move forward,” he said.

Members of the School of Art cited a lack of both public and contemporary art and noted the defining presence of public art on such campuses as Princeton, Harvard, and the University of San Diego.

Some campus members were not so sure.

“I think the art part of the campus is getting in the face of people who don’t have an appreciation for art,” said Mark Adamson, an alumnus and Computing Services staff member. “They’re putting it right out in front of campus, and they’re saying ‘This is the campus.’ There’s more than artists on campus. I don’t think CFA would like it if we put a 16-foot model of an IBM 360 in the front of campus.”

Gordon Lewis, a Heinz School professor and chair of the Faculty Affairs Council, agreed.

“To me, it defines us as a leading university that doesn’t believe in physics,” he said. “Where it
is, I immediately feel that it defines us in the wrong way,” he said.

According to Robinson, the committee’s aim is to have the piece installed by commencement.

The committee’s response

The PAC convened immediately following the forum to discuss the siting while the debate was, according to Robinson, “very fresh in our minds.”

From that discussion, the committee has made recommendations to president Jared Cohon for siting on both pieces — the Baker Hall alcove for “Mao Yisheng,” and the area of the Cut near Forbes Avenue for “Walking to the Sky.”

“I think it was very clear that people — no matter what they felt about the piece coming or not coming or whether they like it or not — they felt the site we recommend was much preferable [to] the site that was originally recommended on the Mall,” Robinson said in a telephone interview following the forum.

Pending the president’s approval, the proposed sites will go forward to Facilities Management Services for final approval.

University officials created the PAC at the end of February as a result of Public Art Policy guidelines being put in place. Over the last couple of months, the guidelines went through review and passed into University policy early this semester. The policy stipulated the formation of the committee with the dean of CFA as the chair.

Other committee members include the head of the School of Art, the director of the Regina Gouger Miller art gallery, the associate vice-provost for Campus Design & Facility Development, the director in the office of the president, and the vice-president of advancement. The committee also includes two each of trustees, faculty, and students — two undergraduate and two graduate.

The policy also stipulates a public forum for feedback on all future public art.

“We have to listen to representation from all sources — it’s important,” Robinson said.

Robinson was “very pleased” to see so many people — approximately 175, according to a March 15 article in the Post-Gazette — at the inaugural forum.