‘Benchghazi’: Bench designs planned for Main Street stir public art debate

One of five bench designs recommended for Downtown’s Main Street

The City of Las Vegas’ handling of Dennis Oppenheim’s controversial Gateway to the Arts District paintbrushes, along with the empty Boulder Plaza sculpture park and First Street Art Trail, serve to some as still-ridiculed beacons of half-baked public art projects.

So when bench designs for the Main Street improvement project were revealed last week, the usual backlash from artists and area advocates came in such a hailstorm of frustration that arts writer Ed Fuentes humorously dubbed it “Benchghazi.”

It’s not that Wisconsin-based artist Gail Simpson isn’t qualified. Her portfolio (solo and with partner Aristotle Georgiades at Actual Size Artworks) is quite exceptional, showing sophistication and wit. But her five metal bench designs—inspired by fireworks, hot rods, vintage signs, mustang horses and mountains—have been derided as trite.

Arts Commissioner Brian “Paco” Alvarez (who was on the committee that selected Simpson) says that choosing artists solely on qualifications rather than final designs is a flawed process, adding that such projects should go to local artists. “When we invite outside artists to create something for Las Vegas, they always look at the superficiality of the city.”

City spokesman Jace Radke says that 27 submissions from local and national artists were received, with three portfolios selected and turned over to the five-member subcommittee, which also included Marc Abelman, Todd VonBastiaans, Kristina Swallow and Amy Fincham. Of the seven ideas Simpson presented, the Arts Commission selected five to represent the 50 benches planned for Main Street beautification.

Surprised by the final designs, VonBastiaans says, “What I was shown by the artist was functional, fun and sophisticated. These are none of that. The subject matter is reductive. It’s awful placemaking. I wish they would celebrate the true diversity and uniqueness of this city and not scratch the surface.”

A revision clause was included in the contract, but according to Alvarez, the process was rushed. Radke, however, pointed out that the bench criticism isn’t widespread: “The city has received a lot of positive feedback on our social-media channels about the art benches. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and art is subjective.”

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Kristen Peterson

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