Thursday, June 9, 2011

What's Behind the Fence? Public Art to be Installed Near Clarke House

Construction fence erected north of Clarke House Museum in Chicago Women's Park.
As many of our neighbors, friends, and museum docents have noticed construction fencing was erected a few weeks ago in the Chicago Women's Park & Gardens, site of Clarke House Museum. But what's going on behind the fence?

"The fence has been erected due to the installation of the Helping Hands sculpture, by renowned artist Louise Bourgeois, in Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens.  In honor of the late Louise Bourgeois, Jane Addams and countless other great women, the Chicago Park District believes it appropriate to place this symbolic art piece in Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens to be viewed by park patrons," according to Dana R. Andrews, Legislative and Community Affairs Liaison for the Chicago Park District.

Artist Louise Bourgeois, sculptor of Helping Hands.

Helping Hands was originally dedicated in 1996 and placed in Jane Addams Memorial Park, part of Navy Pier Park near Ohio Street Beach. The six-piece installation was created by renowned French-American sculptress Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) and consists of life-size hands perched atop rusticated pedestals, carved from black granite. It remained in Jane Addams Memorial Park until 2005 when it was removed due to repeated instances of vandalism and placed in storage at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Chicago Reader ran the story in February 2005. According to Art Institute documents, the piece "celebrates the thousands and thousands of people Jane Addams served, rather than glorifying a single, humble individual." Sometime last year, talks began to take place between the Art Institute and the Chicago Park District concerning a new public space for the sculpture's re-installation.

Helping Hands in its previous location at Navy Pier's Jane Addams Memorial Park
"We have been working closely with the Art Institute of Chicago on the project," said Julia Bachrach, Department of Planning and Development at the Chicago Park District. "and have commissioned Andrzej Dajnowski to do the installation." Danjnowski is an object conservator with AIC and is best known for his work on Loredo Taft’s Fountain of Time (c. 1920), located in Hyde Park.

At the Chicago Women's Park Advisory Council meeting on Tuesday, June 7, 2011 Michael Darling, head curator at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art,  spoke about the artistic significance of the piece. He explained the prolific career of Louise Bourgeois and her influence on the art world. The sculpture is extremely visually dynamic, according to Darling, and represents the far reach Jane Addams and other influential Chicago women had throughout the city. The expert level of detail Bourgeois was able to attain is evident in the hands, some clearly very young, some markedly aged, and some in-between. Darling praised the skill of the artist and the successful execution of the piece. 

The area where Helping Hands is to be installed formerly held a fountain made by Robinson Iron, Alexander City, Alabama using nineteenth-century molds and pattern books. A favorite fixture of many neighborhood children, the small fountain features a fish finial rising from its bowl and frogs and turtles along the edge of the lower basin. The fish fountain has been removed to make space for Helping Hands and its  whereabouts and intended use are currently unknown to Chicago Park District liaisons.

Robinson's Iron fish fountain before it was removed from Chicago Women's Park & Gardens
According to Liz O'Callahan of the Chicago Park District, who also attended Tuesday's advisory council meeting, the beds surrounding the sculpture will retain a formal design- a central circular area covered in crushed red granite  framed with low-lying plantings of ‘Chicagoland Green’ boxwood, ‘Rozanne’ Geranium and ‘Blue Hill' Salvia.The installation will include a metal interpretive plaque on stand with a narrative titled "Visionary". Work on the area is expected to be completed by next Friday, June 17, 2011. A formal dedication is planned for September.

Interpretive sign to accompany Helping Hands installation.

We took a peak to see what was going on 
behind the fence the afternoon of June 2, 2011.


  1. The Chicago Park District, for reasons unknown, has broken the trust of the local community it had previously worked to establish, by not seeking input from us before removing existing art and installing new art of a different nature, as Park Dstrct. Planning Dept. representatives had promised during the open community meetings held within the past 24 months during the Park District take over of the Women's Park & Gardens from the Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs...Further, they explicitly promised that no major changes to the park would be undertaken and, per the City of Chicago Park Dstrct. reps present at the meeting on June 7th,last week failed to even consult or coordinate with the Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs who manages the Clark House. Museum within the park, or the advisory council for the park consisting of local residents regarding the recent changes.

    Other issues directly related to the change that have not considered or taken advantage of local community input include safety of children who may play near the area where the art is being installed, coordination with the original themes of the park's landscaping, and with the Clark House Museum curators and investors. Further, possible needs for security for the park and new art have not yet been addressed. Especially in light of the taxpayer cost to restore the sculpture was,(especially in this economy),we hope the people behind the project are including security for young children who will play near the art, the art and park themselves, and whether it will be welcome by the local community --even if it is decided it should be placed within the same park-. this was not well handled/managed--not to mention principles like honesty and common sense being ignored--Maybe it is not too late for the Park District to rectify some of the concerns written about here---before actually completing the work underway?---

    Overall, we are very fortunate and grateful for the special park we have that includes historic museums within and nearby---We hope the City realizes it for what it is, before trying to improve what is great already without taking advantage of the insights of those that live nearby and use it daily or, deciding to relocate more into it without consideration of the local community and current stakeholders it serves.

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