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Finding the right site for public art

The massive iron piece of sculpture was lost on the Mountaintop Campus, where the gently rolling terrain offered plenty of room for exhibition, but little in the way of a backdrop.

Now, the striking piece by Menasche Kadishman titled “Sacrifice of Isaac” has a new home, positioned against a stark concrete wall separating Taylor Gym from the Rauch Business Center.

“It’s a very powerful piece,” says Ricardo Viera, associate professor of art and architecture and curator of the Lehigh University Art Galleries. “But you didn’t notice it before. You need to see it against something to appreciate its strength and its bold design.”

Now, says Viera, he hears the sculpture being discussed by students, professors, and visitors to campus.

“If, by moving this piece here, we have three or four people a day notice it, discuss it, we’ve succeeded in making them more aesthetically aware,” he says. “We’ve expanded their understanding and appreciation of art.”

Accessible art

The re-siting of the “Sacrifice of Isaac” sculpture is part of a larger initiative begun on campus last fall, when Viera taught a first-time course titled “Public Art, Public Decisions.” In it, Viera and a succession of internationally renowned experts spoke to students on both the aesthetics and the mechanics of art that lives in public spaces.

As part of the class, students and professors identified pieces of sculpture that could be re-sited in more pleasing locations on the Asa Packer Campus, and then worked their way through the process of moving and placing them. The majority of the pieces now line Memorial Walkway, where stark, modernistic pieces of steel joined at jarring angles share space with the rounded, ample curves of Herbert Seiler’s “Bronze Seated Woman.”

“Everyone adores this one,” says Viera of Seiler’s bronze form. “The rich color, the soothing lines. And look how it both reflects its surroundings, as well as amplifies them. In the fall, the yellowing leaves of the plants surrounding it complement the colors. In winter, it has a completely different look and feel.”

Although the walkway presented a natural “gallery,” as well as a steady stream of visitors, it is not the only site for sculpture on campus. New pieces include “The Temple,” a metal sculpture by Mary Ann Unger that allows visitors to walk inside. The modernistic form stands in stark contrast to the soft gray of Packer Church’s weathered exterior—a juxtaposition Viera finds as intriguing as it is appealing.

“There’s an interactive aspect to this,” he says. “You can touch it, you can walk inside it. It’s art that is accessible—not mystifying and unapproachable.”

Eliciting a response

Viera’s course represented only the first phase of an ambitious program that will continue to re-site pieces of sculpture on campus, as well as expand what is already considered a world-class sculpture garden at Lehigh—an outgrowth of the vision and generosity of Phil and Muriel Berman, and the Berman’s daughter, Nancy.

Phil Berman was fond of saying that “art should elicit a response,” and Viera feels that placing the pieces of sculpture in more public venues and allowing viewers to interact with them creates greater impact.

“My father appreciated people’s responses to sculpture encountered in the environment and habit of everyday living,” says Nancy Berman, a member of Lehigh’s board of trustees and director emerita of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. “He loved monumental outdoor sculpture and—just as much—loved the artists themselves and their creative process. Lehigh, with its grand and varied landscapes and its adventuresome and open leadership, seemed a natural place to site art.”

Lehigh’s three campuses, spanning 1,600 acres, are home to nearly 70 pieces of outdoor works that include massive pieces by such prominent sculptors as Henry Moore, Ephraim Peleg, Kadishman and Igael Tumarkin, says Viera, who is also quick to credit Bobb Carson, the retired dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, for taking a leadership role in supporting the project.

“It’s a very ambitious project, and Bobb saw the value of it early on,” he says. “And many others—the president, the provost, the new dean—have been very supportive. Now, the hard work begins.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, December 10, 2003

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