Home Arts What does the sculpture squabble say about arts in Appleton?

What does the sculpture squabble say about arts in Appleton?


It’s been a lightning rod for debate.

Perhaps “The Collective” has also served as a barometer.

The Downtown Appleton sculpture is telling us a thing or two about where we stand amid so many efforts large and small to establish Appleton as an arts-friendly community. 

Last week, Appleton’s municipal services committee recommended removal of the sculpture and collaboration to find a new home for the piece. The recommendation is on the agenda for Wednesday’s common council meeting, however city leaders do not expect it to go to a vote. Instead, it’s expected the issue will be referred back to city staff.

It’s been polarizing and residents haven’t minced words. On one side, it’s been described as junk, creepy and a monstrosity.

Others have used words such as whimsical, complex and hauntingly beautiful. 

And for all that’s been said about the piece, some residents are concerned about what the controversy and potential city action could mean for the overall future of public art in Appleton.  

“Is this not setting things up to have to cave to anyone who doesn’t think something is art?” Tracey Thoen Hornung recently asked on the city’s Facebook page. “I mean, are we only going to cater to the Precious Moments and Thomas Kinkade crowd?”

“The Collective” is a work of Paul Bobrowitz, Jr. Created of propane tanks, the sculpture is a head made of smaller faces and represents the complex composition of our communities.

It’s part of the third season of Acre of Art, a program of Sculpture Valley, which has brought community sponsored sculptures to the downtown and riverfront districts of Appleton, Neenah and Menasha.

Critics say the piece doesn’t fit its surroundings. There were complaints that the neighborhood wasn’t given notice. 

It isn’t the first time that Appleton folks have gotten riled by artwork that doesn’t follow a one-size-fits-all aesthetic.

In 2018, complaints reached city hall regarding the mural, then in progress, on the side of Missfits Tavern. The depiction of a three-eyed skull with a mane of snakes didn’t sit well with many. Appleton officials went to Facebook to explain the mural met the requirements of an ordinance that doesn’t dictate subject matter.

“We should embrace and appreciate the freedoms we have and find the beauty in that, whether you like what you see or not,” city officials explained.

Before “The Collective,” most minds would’ve went to Dimitri Hadzi’s “Fox River Oracle” at the mention of an art controversy in Appleton. 

The large scale stone sculpture continues to draw mixed opinion — and its share of derision — more than 30 years after its installation just north of the Oneida Skyline Bridge.

The $160,000 needed for the project was privately raised. And the abstract modernist sculptor — a Harvard professor — brought impeccable credentials to the region. It was Hadzi’s second work in Wisconsin.

Yet many were dismissive even before its completion.

Jim Smits, an alderman at the time, referred to it as “a dumb pile of rocks.”

Like it or not, it’s become a feature of Appleton. It’s part of what makes us distinct.

Former Lawrence University president Rik Warch spoke at the June 12, 1987 dedication and was interviewed by The Post-Crescent in 2004 in a piece revisiting the work and its surrounding controversy. 

Warch said his message at dedication was that “Appleton should not go for the safe and traditional, but the bold and the ambitious.”

So what does today’s barometer have to say?

We’re a transforming city, though it’s pretty clear we have a way to go before reaching the other side.

We’re seeing more art than ever in more public spaces, yet not much for art that would challenge any comfort zones.

Regardless of what becomes of debate over “The Collective,” it’s worth wondering what comes next.

Does this serve as a rallying point for those who seek the bold and ambitious? 

Or do we see this episode as a demonstration of our self-imposed limits and do we resign ourselves to stay comfortably within them?

We could only hope its the former.

Art is meant to stir emotion — and spark conversation.

The worst possible outcome would be if “The Collective” marks the last time Appleton has a public display worthy of such fervent discussion.