The Art Around The Art

By Lawrence Cosentino

Public sculpture thrives in MSU and East Lansing

Had enough art for a while? Take a break. Step out of the Broad Museum onto the MSU campus, stroll past the ancient trees and ivy-curtained walls, and — uh-oh.

Thanks largely to a major public art initiative that began in 1999, the MSU campus is loaded with free-standing sculptures, metallic wall-crawlers, atrium super-danglers and epic paintings by famous artists. The city of East Lansing to the north is also liberally sprinkled with public art.

The MSU Public Art on Campus Committee, created in 1999, dedicates 0.5 percent of the cost of major renovations on campus (capped at a hefty $250,000 per building) to art. So far, 67 art works of various sizes and styles have been installed all over campus under the program, many of them big and bold.

Among the most spectacular is the $150,000 “Funambulist,” by New York sculptor John Van Alstine, towering over the courtyard west of the renovated Snyder-Phillips residence halls. After a rocky period of bafflement, hostility and vandalism, the sculpture settled in as a fixture of west campus.

Jeff Kacos, the campus planning official who chairs the public art committee, said the MSU public art works were commissioned from significant artists around the country and designed to harmonize with specific sites.

The MSU trustees launched the program, Kacos said, to fill a crying need on campus. No matter how rock-hard his abs, “Sparty” can’t carry the aesthetic load by himself. 

“You come around the corner and suddenly see a dramatic sculpture,” Kacos said. “It gives the students a chance to think about art a little bit as they go about their lives.”

The public arts committee includes Broad Museum Director Michael Rush and Curator Alison Gass, but it is independent of the Broad Museum.

The program began conservatively, with a statue of longtime MSU President John Hannah striding purposefully to work in front of the Administration Building, but most of the art is vividly abstract, playfully post modern or quasi-decorative.

(The Hannah statue turned out to be interactive, though. Students slip a piece of fruit or bunch of flowers into his hand to enjoy at the office he never quite manages to reach.)

Most of the MSU art is much wilder than a bronze administrator carrying a briefcase. Ed Carpenter’s sinuous tubular spine in the atrium of the new Brody Hall building (a work of art in itself) is about 90 feet long, with dichroic (variably reflecting) glass attached by steel cables.

“It feels like it’s growing out of the architecture,” Kacos said. “That’s the kind of thing you can get when you are able to commission a work for a specific space.”

Less than two weeks ago, two more major works went up on campus: a joyous array of (apparently) exploding glass tubas by New York sculptor Alice Aycock hanging in the new Wells Hall addition and a delicate Katy Stone wall installation for the new Bott Nursing Education Building, dedicated last week.

There’s even more public art in East Lansing, across the street from the Broad Museum, beginning close by. The first piece a museum visitor might spot, outside the Broad’s sculpture garden, dances in the Grand River median strip.

Anthony Frudakis’ “Andromeda,” installed in 2000, seems to turn with wonder — or shock — at the prodigy of architecture that suddenly sprang up behind her. 

A few steps away, Evan Lewis’ “Anima Librata,” a twirly, tubular display about 15 feet tall, stands within sight of the Broad Museum, in a small plaza behind Wanderer’s Teahouse.

Seekers of hard-core abstract sculpture can walk two blocks west and check out a stark, neuron-like shape that gives Alexander Calder a run for his money: Thomas Young’s gigantic “L5 and Beyond,” dating from 1976, in Parking Lot 1 just off of Albert Road. Another block east, at the corner of Abbott and Albert, stands a haunting bronze pillar studded with human faces, cast in 1999 by New York sculptor, MSU alumna and Broad Museum donor Louise McCagg.

A brand new 52-foot-long mural by artist Tony Hendrick, dedicated Oct. 31, takes a softer tack. Hendrick’s verdant nature panorama, in the south stairwell of the Division Street Parking Garage, was commissioned by the city in honor of the Broad Museum opening.

It’s not the kind of art that would go into Broad Museum, but it’s a warm gesture of welcome, like a kindly aunt baking a pie for a trendy New York nephew who has come to live next door.