Nineteen months after artist Fred Wilson proposed a work of public art for a major new venue in Indianapolis, the project seemed to be moving quietly forward. Titled E Pluribus Unum (at right), the sculpture was commissioned by the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a city-neighborhood-connecting pedestrian and bicycle path. (The ICT is the product of a collaboration between the City of Indianapolis, a regional foundation and several non-profits. It’s becoming a prominent venue for public art in Indianapolis: Sculptures, including a work by Julian Opie, have been placed along the trail and others have been proposed, including this scent-driven piece by Sean Derry.)
Throughout 2009 and 2010, the ICT held a series of meetings to try to introduce Wilson and E Pluribus Unum to the community. Art students showed up and maybe a few other folks did too. The groups that Wilson and the ICT most wanted to engage — the quarter of Indianapolis residents who are African-American — were mostly disinterested. Local black talk radio pretty much ignored Wilson and the project.
“Honestly, it had been a little bit difficult to get a lot of people from the community involved,” Indianapolis Cultural Trail curator and public art project coordinator Mindy Taylor Ross told me last week.
This was both a surprise and a disappointment to the ICT’s organizers. Wilson, who describes describes himself as being of “African, Native American, European and Amerindian” descent, is best known for creating installations that engage and question the traditional display of art and artifacts. Typically his work uses pre-existing objects to raise new questions about historical narratives — or to make points about how those narratives are formed. In 1999 he was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant and he serves as a trustee at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He’s particularly fond of creating works that create conversations, that start people talking about community issues through the prism of art.
Finally, about two months ago the Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s African-American newspaper, ran a story on Wilson and his proposed sculpture. All of a sudden Ross and Wilson had all the attention and dialogue they’d wanted — and more.