Public art or public enemy? Madison’s ‘Philosophers’ Stones

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Does public art breed street crime?

“I’m not aware of any connection,” says Joel DeSpain, public information officer for the Madison Police Department. 

But the Madison Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development plans to probe the issue during a meeting of its downtown coordinating committee 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Nov. 20 at the Madison Central Library. The public is invited to take part.

The issue came to the forefront in an Oct. 1 editorial in The Wisconsin State Journal. The editorial suggested that an installation called “Philosophers’ Stones” contributed to “drug dealing and prostitution,” as well as “abusive language” and littering at the top of State Street. “Pull the artsy stones from the top of State Street,” the editorial opined.

The “stones” are 34 granite and 10 bronze cylinders, angled to form seats and tabletops. They comprise a 2004 work of public art by Jill Sebastian, professor of sculpture at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

More of the stones are to be added at the base of Bascom Hill, but so far they’re spread along the length of State Street, with the predominance at the intersection with Mifflin Street, proximate to Capitol Square.

No area business owners were cited in the editorial for having complained about the stones, but an earlier article credited Ian’s Pizza and unnamed “observers.” Turning from crime to arts criticism, the State Journal concluded, “This awkward attempt at public art won’t be missed. It’s never been popular with the general public.”

I spoke with other unnamed observers who countered that the stones are indeed popular, especially on weekends. For all we know, there would be more crime if there were no art at all. Prior to the top of State Street becoming a popular congregating place, Peace Park in mid-State was the place to converge, according to DeSpain. “There were similar problems there until infrastructure was changed,” he recalls. 

Ironically, part of the solution was the introduction of public art.

And DeSpain points out, “Certainly, other parts of the isthmus (also) get a good deal of police attention, particularly lower State Street and the 600 block of University Avenue.” 

The Madison Arts Commission has no process for de-accessioning works. Sebastian says that creating and installing the “Philosophers’ Stones” cost $150,000.

“It would cost much more to pull it out,” she says. “The construction folks did a fabulous job.”

Sebastian regrets that debate has turned away from the real human issues. “Why is there no in-depth investigative reporting on the condition of the homeless or the claims about prostitution and drug dealing on State Street?” she asks. “What customer base supports those activities if indeed they occur?

“Calling to remove art doesn’t address the root causes but makes amusing reading based on erroneous, unsupported assumptions,” Sebastian says. “If adding art or removing it were a quick solution, wouldn’t that be easy?”

PHOTOS: Courtesy Jill Sebastian

Madison’s “Philosophers’ Stones,” by Milwaukee sculptor Jill Sebastian.

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