Pier Walk, the annual outdoor sculpture exhibition at Chicago’s Navy Pier, shrinks steadily as commerce invades places where sculptures once stood. Originally constructed in 1916, Navy Pier is a long, shed-like structure, surrounded by a spacious pedestrian promenade that extends 3,000 feet out into Lake Michigan. The pier was largely derelict and threatened with demolition in the ’80s when the City of Chicago modernized it into a multi-use structure with amusements, restaurants, shops, theaters, and exposition halls. Fabulously successful, Navy Pier now attracts millions of visitors yearly and delivers millions of dollars in fees and tax revenues to the city.
The first International Art Exposition was held at Navy Pier in 1982, bringing dealers and collectors from all over the world. Artists organized to exhibit on Navy Pier during the expo, and, in 1995, two Chicago sculptors set up Pier Walk. Three years later, 178 outdoor sculptures were installed at Navy Pier from May through November.
As Navy Pier expanded commercially, management filled open areas with hot dog stands, beer gardens, picnic tables, and the like. Today, these interferences have driven public sculpture off the pier. Kiosks are now appearing in Gateway Park, a grassy area at the base of the pier where sculptors still show. This park is boxed in, with no room for expansion in any direction.
The result is a dramatic reduction in the number of works exhibited—from 178 in 1998 to 80 in 2001, to 23 pieces by 15 artists in 2004. Joseph Tabet, the investment counselor who chairs Pier Walk’s Board of Directors, says that there’s “no official limit” to the number of pieces, but 25 “seems about right.” Pier Walk is “much more exclusive now,” he states. “It means more.”
Pier Walk has almost zero administrative overhead because Navy Pier provides office space and public relations support without charge. Pier Walk has no paid staff, and Board members volunteer their time. But Navy Pier takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. Hot dogs generate revenue, after all. Public sculptures do not.
Pier Walk commissioned New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl to curate the 2004 exhibition. Schjeldahl sees Pier Walk as a “festival” and “an experiment in possibilities and problems of serious artistic pleasure outside the walls of museums and galleries.” In choosing work, he looked for “crowd-friendliness, variety, and surprise”—nothing on a pedestal—and admits that his selection criteria made him “unfair to much good art whose character is more contemplative than gregarious, or whose style seemed familiar from past Pier Walks.” The show is temporary so Schjeldahl felt free to take some risks. His selections include Richard Deacon’s five flower-like metal structures (Infinity); Erik Geschke’s Safety First, a white, cube-like construction of steel sheet with many handles; Actual Size Artworks’ amusing Trojan Piggybank, history’s fattest pig made from cedar boards over a steel armature; and Zoran Mojsilov’s granite Grandma’s Mountain, a very people-friendly work since the artist wants the public to sit and climb on it.
Artists like the exposure that Pier Walk gives them, and they enjoy the attention from a prominent art critic. Though Gateway Park is less than ideal, they shrug and make the best of it. “This is a quality show with a good reputation,” says the Australian Andrew Rogers, whose cast bronze Weightless #1 looks like it just floated down from the blue. “In an urban setting, you have to be good enough, strong enough to stand out.” Mojsilov has benefited tremendously from his six appearances in Pier Walk and doesn’t fret much about the surroundings. “Artists are like weeds,” he says. “The more you kill them, the more they grow back.”
Pier Walk 2004 remains open through November 8, 2004.
For more information, visit the Web site <www.pierwalk.com>.