Local dispatch / Airport art is not always a pretty picture: The story of Calder's 'Pittsburgh'

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A controversy has erupted over the possibility that Peter Calaboyias' installation sculpture, "Silver Grid Wall," will be removed from Pittsburgh International Airport. (See the Dec. 24 Post-Gazette article "Artist Fears Airport Agency May Replace Work With Ads.") The event brings back memories of a similar "art vs. ads" flap in 1977 at the old Pittsburgh airport terminal.

Most visitors to the airport are aware of the major Alexander Calder sculpture at the top of the escalators in the atrium of the airside terminal. Not everyone, however, might realize that the piece is called "Pittsburgh" and was commissioned for the 1958 Pittsburgh International (as the Carnegie International was called then).

For the exhibit, it was displayed in the grand staircase of the Carnegie Museum. In 1959, it was reinstalled in the rotunda of the then-new Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

Public art, good for everyone, right? But the piece -- one of Calder's largest -- fell into the hands of county maintenance workers, charged with its installation.

The original mobile was black and white. The county repainted it roughly orange and green -- the county colors. Because of space limitation in the rotunda, some of the paddles were weighted and some were welded. The whole thing, made rigid, was rigged with an electric motor which turned it 40 times per minute.

Astonishing. But more amazing was the fact that almost 20 years passed before anyone even noticed this rape of an internationally recognized piece of art.

The turning point in this disgraceful dumbing-down of an artistic treasure came late one night in October 1977. It involved me and, as it happens, this newspaper.

I was dragging home from a business trip, disgusted with flying and in a foul mood. I encountered the familiar Calder mobile -- and found it almost obliterated by a massive commercial advertising kiosk. There were photos, pieces of mining equipment and videos, reaching up 10 to 15 feet and almost touching the mobile. The space was regularly used for promotional displays, but this one was much larger. (The mobile itself, for all I knew at the time, was perfectly OK. I knew nothing about its manipulation by the county.)

The advertising kiosk's affront to my artistic sensibility sent me flying to my typewriter (yes, it was 1977). I dashed off a letter to the editor, which the Post-Gazette published on Oct. 21 under the headline "Look What's Under the Calder Mobile: Junk."

"The effect of this [display], because of its height, lighting and floor area, is that the mobile becomes a secondary impact to the person entering the rotunda," I wrote. "The exhibit, in effect, lessens the intended visual message of the mobile, which suggests the freedom of flight and space. ... Is the revenue generated by selling commercial exhibit space worth the loss of this nationally important work of art?"

A flurry of letters ensued, some supporting my points and others dissenting. James W. Wilcock, chairman and CEO of Joy Manufacturing, one of the exhibitors, wrote, "Rather than be carried away by a short interruption in the aesthetics of the mobile, I would suggest those critics give consideration to something fundamental, such as the employment involved in the four companies represented and the vital need to acquaint many people with the products of those companies. It is this total concentration on non-economic factors that is slowly eroding and destroying American business."

The exchanges brought art historian Diana Jannetta (Diana Rose at the time) into the battle. Her research launched the process of restoring the mobile to its original condition and to its place among Pittsburgh's major pieces of public sculpture. And in a gracious display of civic-mindedness, Mr. Wilcock of Joy Manufacturing offered to underwrite the costs of moving the sculpture back to the Carnegie and to help restore it.

By 1979, the mobile was reinstalled in its original location in the Carnegie stairwell. It remained there until the new airport opened in 1992, when it was properly installed in its present location in the airside terminal.

The response of the art world and commercial interests in 1977 seems to be re-emerging in this present controversy over Peter Calaboyias' artwork.

Public discourse in the late 1970s not only restored the Calder sculpture, but also led to discussions of a city-county arts council and subsequent public policy efforts in thinking about public art.

These gains should not be lost over short-term fiscal considerations. We should now be well beyond thinking that art and commerce cannot support each other in mutually beneficial ways.

Philip B. Hallen, president emeritus of the Falk Foundation, lives in Shadyside ( phallen630@aol.com ).


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