Park in Aspinwall to house $1 million-plus sculpture that kids can climb

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This story reads a bit like a fable, a tale passed down through generations to illustrate such virtues as hard work, commitment and community. A seemingly impossible goal is achieved by perseverance, and in the end a powerful benefactor bestows a gift that takes it beyond what was originally imagined.

In 2010, Aspinwall residents learned that debris-filled acreage along the Allegheny River was going to be developed as a parking lot. They preferred a park, and a grass-roots effort to secure the land began. One hope was for a special play area for all of the children who had helped by raising funds and other volunteer work.

Tuesday night, the Aspinwall Riverfront Park organization announced at a project update meeting that The Grable Foundation had procured an important public artwork, which is simultaneously sculpture and play equipment. "Playground" by Brooklyn artist Tom Otterness will charm little visitors, but it should also become a destination for art tourism.

It's due to arrive in the fall when the 10-acre park, now in the construction phase, is projected to open to the public.

"We wanted to make a long-standing contribution," said Gregg Behr, Grable Foundation executive director.

Over decades Grable has supported such child-friendly endeavors as the North Shore Watersteps, Roboworld at Carnegie Science Center and Fred Rogers exhibits at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. It has funded dozens of playgrounds in city parks, learning centers and community centers across the region, Mr. Behr said.

"We'd reached the point where we wanted to do something special for children and families in the city."

"Playground" is a fanciful 30-by-30-by-24-foot reclining bronze figure with legs that children may slide down and a head they may climb into and peer out from. Small figures placed within it offer opportunities for discovery.

"For some it's an artistic expression, for some a totally whimsical and imaginative playground," Mr. Behr said.

He hesitated to give an exact purchase price but acknowledged that "it's an expensive piece, in excess of a million dollars." He speculated that it will be the most valuable public art piece in the region.

Susan Crookston, an Aspinwall resident and project director, said the sculpture "is going to be an incredible legacy." She'd learned that it takes on average 10 years to build a park and was "working feverishly" to present something a little more immediate to the more than 3,000 people who donated trick-or-treat money, mowed lawns, wrote checks, hauled trash and otherwise contributed to the park's success.

"I was looking for something wonderful, dramatic and useful," she said.

"Playground" more than met that criteria. "This is not taxpayer money. This is not costing anyone anything. To enable [the children] to be able to interact with and touch great art -- what an incredible gift."

The sculpture is a loaned installation, which means the foundation retains ownership. That's a good thing because Grable will take care of such things as landscape design, siting and ongoing maintenance.

"This is a work of art and we don't have any experience with how to care for it," Ms. Crookston said. "They will endow its care and maintenance. They're paying for landscaping, which is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the trees alone. They're making a significant investment in our community."

The Aspinwall sculpture is the fifth in a limited-edition series of six. The piece was originally designed in response to a call for public art submissions in Milwaukee. It wasn't selected, but the concept materials were placed at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, which represents Mr. Otterness. The first three of the series were purchased by private collectors and are located at their homes in Aspen, Colo., Cape Cod, Mass., and Florida. In 2010, the fourth was installed in a publicly accessible park adjacent to two apartment developments in Manhattan's West 40s. Mr. Otterness is delighted that his work is coming to a second public location.

"It was originally a public competition," he said by phone last week, "and that's almost always where my work begins, with the idea it's going to be in a public space."

He visits the New York "Playground" regularly to see how children interact with it. "I've seen kids talking to the sculpture and engaging with it. That's part of the payoff."

When conceiving the work, Mr. Otterness thought of scale and how children would experience it. "Sort of like Alice in Wonderland, how they feel really small when they first see it and how they feel when they find the smaller figures. It goes from being 35 feet long to something like Mount Rushmore relative to those little pieces.

"It's hard to know what kids are thinking. Everybody is larger for a kid. I like that it's not just physical activity but stretching kids' minds, exercising their minds and their imaginations."

Mr. Otterness, born in 1952 in Wichita, Kan., has lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for 35 years. He maintains a studio in Brooklyn that has a dozen to 20 employees, dependent upon projects. His work is in many private and public collections including the Carnegie Museum of Art; Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, all in New York; The Miyagi Museum of Art, Sendai, Japan; and Museo Tamayo, Mexico City.

While many of his sculptures are playful, he also makes thoughtful critique of consumer culture and class disparities as evidenced in exhibitions with titles such as "Free Money and Other Fairy Tales" and "The Public Unconscious." That may explain the continuing agitation over a 1977 film the artist made in which he shoots a dog rescued from a shelter. What appears to be an unlikely coalition of animal lovers and right-wing conservatives surfaces to condemn the artist whenever a public commission is being considered.

To place the film in context, while not excusing it, extreme acts were commonplace in contemporary art in the 1970s and '80s. In performance, Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm and crawled half-naked on broken glass; Marina Abramovic carved a star into her abdomen with a razor blade; Bob Flanagan nailed his penis to a wooden board; Ann Mendieta dripped the blood of a decapitated chicken on her naked body.

Mr. Otterness has repeatedly apologized for the video and will no longer discuss it in interviews. His studio provides this statement, which has been frequently cited:

"Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me."

In 40 years, the art world has changed, the country has changed and Mr. Otterness has changed.

"I've come to know Tom and admire and respect him," Mr. Behr said. "What he did was reprehensible. He says so and has apologized. I'm someone who's a dog lover. I understand the pain. But I would hope the focus would be on the art."

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas' column appears Wednesdays in Magazine. Contact her at or 412-263-1925.

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