Open Letter From Father Theophan, Chair of the Art in Public Places Board


My tenure as the Chairperson of the Art in Public Places Board (APPB) for Los Alamos County is coming to an end, but I would like to make one plea before I go.

The Parks and Recreation Board came to the APPB a year ago and suggested that we find art to enhance the aesthetics of the Leisure Lagoon, the addition to the Walkup Aquatic Center that is under construction.

Originally, I had found an artist for the outside and the inside of the proposed space, but the exterior proposal would have required a change to the architecture of the building and much expense. The interior piece could be applied to the wall, much like any other tile, after the construction was complete.

When a piece of art is proposed to the board, after the artist and placement and cost of the work is agreed upon, before it is taken to the county council, we seek public comment.

Two years ago, we proposed a large installation by Evelyn Rosenberg that would have enveloped the new pedestrian tunnel under the road leading out of town. The cost was high, but it would have been integrated into the tunnel itself and been a crowning achievement by a well know artist. The county board decided that it was too far out of town and cost too much.

Last month we reached out to the community for comment on “Boys of Pajarito Plateau” by Jeff Segler. The strong majority of the response was negative. Some due to the subject matter, some due to the artist’s affiliation, and some due to the price. The board listened to the public and withdrew the proposal.

Now we are entertaining another proposal. The price is large: $100,000. But for its size, by square footage, it is 1/10th the price of the “Boys” painting. Two-hundred square feet of hand-made and hand-painted porcelain is not cheap, but it is permanent. Amanda Jaffe has a similar mural that has remained unchanged outside the Staten Island Zoo, exposed to New York winters, for the past 30 years. She was my ceramics professor 25 years ago, and was creating large tile, water-themed, installations back then. When this space was suggested to the board, I immediately thought of her work.

The argument as to whether or not there should be a public art collection in Los Alamos was settled 20 years ago. The county charter has 1 percent of capital improvement projects allocated for public art and 1.5 percent of road projects, not necessarily to be applied to that specific project.

We also only consider works of art that will last for more than 20 years. If you want the public art to go away, vote on to the county council who will change the charter. Arguing against the APPB in their service won’t get rid of the art, it will only make it harder to find artists willing to work with the county.

When an artist is paid for their work, they are not being paid just for the time and materials that went into that specific piece. They are being paid for their education, for thousands of failures, and hundreds of breakthroughs; for a life-time of commitment to what some vocally deem as worthless.

“Well, I could do that!” as an argument against art, should receive a resounding, “Then why don’t you?” If it is so easy as to be a worthless endeavor, give it a try. Make something that no one has ever made before, and then put it into a public forum where people with no appreciable education or experience can throw verbal manure at it.

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” is ignorant and arrogant. Take the time to learn about something before you judge it.

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

We on the APP board go out of our way to work with local artists, and if there is a local artist who wants to work with the county and our board, we welcome them as we have in the past. When there are calls for local art, or ideas for placement or installation, we get good feedback, but sometimes must broaden the scope of our search.

This all occurs with the background noise of those who feel that art is a waste of time, that a six-figure payout to an artist is excessive while extolling virtues of weapons scientists making much more than each year.

For the love of our collective humanity, if you value art, if you walk around Ashley Pond and reflect on how beautiful a place we live in, if you feel that Los Alamos’ legacy should be more than weapons systems, please fill out our survey and become vocal in this discussion. Those who don’t care for art, beauty, or transcendence are making themselves heard. Make your voice heard.

Father Theophan Mackey
Los Alamos County Art In Public Places Board