Mark Lane

Best of All Possible Worlds

A Public Art Contest in Evansville, Indiana, Becomes A Debate Over Class, Race, and Good Taste

Discussed: Awarding Prizes to Art, Portals and Boundary States, Riverboat Gambling, Questioning the Priorities of Urban Renewal, Order as a Healing Mechanism, Productive Mental Disorders, High Levels of Ambient Gayness, Part-Time Artists as Bellwethers of Economic Growth, Vandalism, Art Acting Like Art, Meeting the Neighbors, The Kardashians, A Lost Picasso
Best of All Possible Worlds (2011). Socrates Sculpture Park. Queens, New York. Photograph by Saul Melman

Best of All Possible Worlds (2011). Socrates Sculpture Park. Queens, New York.

In early 2012, Saul Melman came across an ad for an outdoor sculpture contest in Evansville, Indiana, a city about which he knew nothing. Artists were invited to propose a sculpture for one of twelve four-by-four-foot concrete pads in Evansville’s arts district, to be evaluated in part based on the sculpture’s integration into the neighborhood and its connection to the community. The award amounts were impressive. One sculpture would win a “Purchase Award,” worth twenty thousand dollars, and a place in Evansville’s permanent art collection. A “Best in Show Award,” worth ten thousand dollars, would be named; second- and third-place winners would take home five thousand and one thousand dollars, respectively; and there would be a five-hundred-dollar “People’s Choice Award.”

Melman, who is an emergency-room physician in Brooklyn as well as a sculptor, figured he had a good shot at winning the contest. Over the course of the preceding year he had begun a new series of sculptures called Best of All Possible Worlds, involving arrangements of translucent doors. The contest’s concrete pads were located on vacant lots in a residential area, and one was positioned in relation to the sidewalk where the front door of a house might be. This particular sculpture site might have been chosen with his work in mind.

Melman makes the doors by subjecting heavy-duty sheets of clear plastic to an industrial process whereby they are heated and then vacuum-molded over actual wooden doors, which he pre-paints so that they shed traces of themselves onto the finished product. The first two versions of his project were sited in the New York metropolitan area, at the Socrates Sculpture Park, in Queens, and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, in Ridgefield, Connecticut. At each site, he arranged the doors according to the floor plan of his Park Slope apartment, to suggest urban domestic space. Configured in this way and scarred with paint and wood remnants, the doors gesture toward specific histories. They look like ghosts on their way out of the world or back into it. They come radically alive in the light.

Melman expects people who encounter the doors to think of portals and boundary states, and of one transition in particular. The idea grew out of his work in the ER, a room where he routinely sees people through that most forbidding of transitions, into nonbeing. A vacant lot was a perfect site, Melman thought, for installing a lone ghost door. He would treat the concrete pad as a front stoop, and he would place one of his doors atop it to suggest the presence of a house that might have been, a house that might one day be.

Best of All Possible Worlds. Socrates Sculpture Park. Queens, New York. Photograph by Saul Melman

Best of All Possible Worlds (2011). Socrates Sculpture Park. Queens, New York.

Evansville, with a metropolitan area population of 350,000 or so, lies across the Ohio River from Kentucky. It is south of Louisville, the closest major city. Also nearby are Nashville, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. Chicago, while farther away, exerts a noticeable influence on Evansville, too. Suspended between these cities and between the South and the Midwest, Evansville’s identity seems fundamentally indeterminate.

Evansville’s downtown has yet to recover from the original suburban flight of the ’60s and ’70s. The city is no postindustrial ruin, though. Main Street is a clean, recently refurbished, brick pedestrian thoroughfare running from the river, past a new $120-million dollar indoor arena sponsored by Ford Motor Company, to the Civic Center, a sprawling complex where the city and county governments are housed. A riverboat casino is permanently docked at the city’s waterfront, and it supports a handful of hotels and restaurants as well as a significant chunk of the municipal budget.

Otherwise there are some sizable office buildings downtown but far fewer restaurants, bars, and coffee shops than you’d expect for a city of Evansville’s size. There is almost no shopping. I counted four vacancies on one block at the heart of Main Street, not including upper-floor advertisements for “loft apartments” that locals later told me have never been occupied. It’s not clear why the downtown isn’t more vibrant, why people and businesses haven’t returned in a more significant way. The city’s outer neighborhoods and suburbs, crammed with the same chain stores and restaurants as everywhere else, appear to be modestly prosperous and functional. Maybe Evansvillians have so many other, bigger cities nearby that they don’t experience the absence of urban amenities as a problem.

Just south of downtown is a strikingly elegant historic district, with gigantic French Revival mansions and towering trees, nothing like anyone’s mental image of Indiana. When I mentioned to Skyler York, a community development planner with Evansville’s Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD) and one of the principal figures behind Sculpt EVV, as the sculpture contest is called, that the neighborhood reminded me of New Orleans’s Garden District, he said that the foundry that manufactured the pressed tin, steel balcony railings, and other Victorian-era metal gewgaws for nineteenth-century New Orleans had been based in Evansville.

The Haynie’s Corner Arts District, where the sites for Sculpt EVV are located, is directly adjacent to the Historic District. It, too, has some impressive Victorian houses, as well as at least as many nondescript boxlike ones, and many vacant lots, the result of a DMD attempt to clear the area of abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

Since 2005, the DMD has purchased over two hundred properties in and around Haynie’s Corner using its nonprofit purchasing arm, Brownfields Recovery Corp. The DMD is willing to subsidize the purchase of these Brownfields-owned houses by people who can commit to a certain dollar amount of renovations, in many cases exceeding what the house will likely be worth anytime soon, given the state of property values in the area. Understandably, such buyers are hard to come by, so the city has ended up demolishing numerous salvageable houses rather than leave them vacant. The city has also partnered with contractors to build new houses on fifteen or so of the cleared lots that it owns, and it has plans to build another forty. To get financing help with these new houses, buyers have to fall below certain income requirements and yet have good enough credit to qualify for a loan. These buyers are hard to come by, too.

Haynie’s Corner Arts District. Evansville, Indiana. Photograph by Saul Melman

Haynie’s Corner Arts District. Evansville, Indiana

In April of 2012, Melman found out that Best of All Possible Worlds had been chosen as one of the dozen finalists for Sculpt EVV, and in late May he strapped the sculpture to the roof of his old Ford Bronco II and drove it down from New York. He crossed through Evansville’s downtown and the picturesque Historic District. He located Haynie’s Corner, and he parked in front of the installation site he had asked for and been assigned. The neighborhood was not what he had been led to expect. The Sculpt EVV submission guidelines said nothing about the arts district being a low-income area.

He was there during the workweek, and on every block people were on their front porches for most of the day. There were signs around the neighborhood identifying it as the arts district and featuring retouched photographs of Victorian houses, the logos of a bank and some nonprofit organizations, and the mayor’s signature. On one of these signs, directly across the street from Melman’s installation site, someone had spray-painted “GENTRIFIE.” There was, additionally, an unmistakable racial component to whatever was occurring here. Haynie’s Corner is a majority black neighborhood. Melman understood exactly how suspicious he, a white New Yorker paid to come in and help with the gentrification, must have looked.

It took him about four hours to anchor the sculpture to the concrete pad. The contest officials offered very little help, and there was no oversight, which struck him as curious given the size of the prize pool and the fact that the design and installation of durable outdoor sculptures require some expertise. The Sculpt EVV finalists’ work was supposed to remain in place until April of 2013, when next year’s contenders would install their pieces, while the sculpture awarded the Purchase Award would remain on display indefinitely. Melman had to sign a release stating that the city was not liable for any damage, and that he was responsible for his own insurance.

As he installed the door and, over the course of the following day, took photographs of it, Melman was approached by some of the neighborhood’s residents, and he approached others, hoping to connect with people. He drank a beer with a woman who lived next door, Rena Meriweather, who told him that everyone in the neighborhood was nervous about the arts stuff, especially since the city had begun putting in new sidewalks, which seemed to point to bigger plans. A guy who lived across the street from Melman’s site pointed out that, while the city was pumping money into the redevelopment, he couldn’t get his landlord to fix broken windows or install smoke alarms. A young white guy called Biscuit, who lived in a spacious house that backs up to the sculpture site, told Melman that he himself was an artist, and that he came to the neighborhood for the cheap rent. He had a whole floor of studio space, and he was worried that once the neighborhood was a full-fledged arts district, he wouldn’t be able to afford it. “Why is art going in here?” another white guy, who was walking past the sculpture site, wanted to know. “This is the ghetto.”

Through the contacts he made in the neighborhood, as well as through the local artists, academics, and arts administrators he came to know while he was in Evansville, Melman learned about Brownfields Corp.’s demolition of houses in the area, and he gathered that there was widespread suspicion about who was benefiting from the redevelopment. No one seemed to know quite what the deal was with Brownfields. Some people said it was a for-profit corporation whose shareholders were lawyers and doctors from Atlanta and Chicago. There was talk of the city kicking people out of perfectly inhabitable houses for minor code violations, claiming ownership of the houses, and then demolishing them in the hopes of turning a massive profit. What was indisputable was that the city had been less than transparent in its dealings with Brownfields, which alone was reason enough to think that something nefarious was going on.

Melman also found out that an attractive, if run-down, Victorian house had stood on his sculpture site until a year or two previously. Everyone in the neighborhood remembered the house. It wasn’t hard, then, to imagine the perspective of someone who felt left out of the redevelopment effort. Suppose you’ve lived in Haynie’s Corner your whole life. You’ve been watching the city tear down houses on every block for the last several years. It’s not like you love everything about the neighborhood, but it’s home, and they’re leveling it. You may not know what their plan is, but it’s obvious you’re not the intended beneficiary. It’s not for your benefit that they’re paying people from out of state to put art where your friend’s grandmother’s house used to be.

Now there’s a ghost door that looks like it’s mocking the fact that a house used to be here, or it looks like an advertisement for the house that’s coming, a house that won’t be for you or anybody you know, and they’re calling it Best of All Possible Worlds. Demolish my house; bring in some rich people; forget I ever existed—that’s the best of all possible worlds?

Best Of All Possible Worlds (2012), Evansville, Indiana. Photograph by Saul Melman

Best Of All Possible Worlds (2012). Evansville, Indiana

As both a physician and an artist, Melman sees himself as a manager of the individual’s sense of order. Sick and injured people are disordered in obvious and concrete ways, and if all goes well in the ER, he helps them in obvious and concrete ways. Often, of course, people come to him near death or in varying states of hopelessness. Though he cannot help these patients in the obvious ways, he can still offer them order by listening attentively and imparting information that will allow them to feel some measure of control. And he considers himself particularly good at what is popularly believed to be the worst part of any ER physician’s job: helping the newly bereaved begin to make sense of their devastation.

“It’s a privilege to have the conversation with family members immediately after their loved one has died,” he told me.

“So you’re comfortable in that situation?”

“I don’t know the right way to say this,” he said. “I’m more than comfortable. I’m in the zone. I know that what they need is a restoration of order. That’s what hope is. I have a very specific process. The process is always primarily about listening. I bring them into a quiet environment, and I make sure there’s a door nearby, that none of the family members are blocking my egress. I have to control the parameters of the situation because they are not in control in that moment. The worst thing has happened. I ask, ‘What is your understanding of what has happened?’ I need to know where they’re coming from factually. Often there are large areas of confusion. As they begin to tell me the facts they know about what has happened, their feelings emerge, and I figure out how to act. It all amounts to an extremely close interpersonal relationship with a complete stranger, and my job is to convey information in a way that they can receive it. They crave order, and I give it to them during this process. They don’t leave healed, but the process has begun.”

He thinks of his sculptures as having similarly close relationships with the complete strangers who view them. “The more they can speak and listen as I do in the ER,” he says, “the stronger they are.” But whereas his job in the ER is to restore order, his job as an artist, as he sees it, is to increase disorder.

By disorder he does not mean the precursor to chaos but the kind of destabilization that leads to insight. Consider Central Governor, his entry in MoMA PS1’s 2010 show Greater New York. The exhibition space allotted to Melman for that show was the sprawling museum’s basement boiler room. Where previous artists had done site-specific work leveraging the room’s dank, dungeon-like qualities, he took aim at the room’s basic identity. Seduced by the steampunk majesty of the house-sized boiler and its tangle of associated pipes, valve handles, and fittings, he transformed the unused machine into a massive jewel.

First he prepared the walls and the boiler by sandblasting a century’s worth of gunk off them, and by removing the tinting and grime from the room’s two small sidewalk-level windows so that sunlight would fall across the boiler from above. Then he brought in five thousand pounds of salt block. Over the course of Greater New York’s run he spent time in the boiler room dressed as two different characters: one who wore a blue jumpsuit, chiseled away at the salt blocks, and swept the floor clean; and another who wore a white apron and applied goldleaf to the surface of the boiler and its pipes. Salt and gold, ceremonial behaviors revolving around a gigantic machine for regulating the building’s temperature—the work points toward processes of alchemical, semi-organic transformation without allowing for anything approaching a neat exegesis.

Melman intentionally left parts of the boiler ungilded, and now that the performance has concluded and the end product remains on long-term display at PS1, notions of transformation and transcendence are front and center, but as with the translucent doors, it is impossible to say in which direction the process might be running. Is the boiler turning to gold, or is it decaying, turning back to iron from gold? Depending on your mood, your cast of mind, and whether or not the sun is shining through the windows across the massive golden machine, Central Governor might seem elegiac or hopeful. It might suggest that transcendence is not just possible but possible in the unlikeliest of places. Or it might seem to be mocking the notion of transcendence: you can bring light to the object, but the object remains its dead, unfathomably heavy self, forever immovable.

On the most basic formal level, too, the piece creates the kind of productive mental disorder Melman sets out to achieve. While I was visiting the boiler room with him, a young couple came in and looked around the room (which also contains small, nearly hidden works by Sol LeWitt and Mike Mullican), trying to figure out where the art was. “I think it’s the boiler,” the guy said, and they took turns posing in front of it, snapping pictures.

“I love that,” Melman said, grinning, after they left the room.

Central Governor (2010). MoMAPS1. Queens, NY. Photograph by Saul Melman

Central Governor (2010). MoMAPS1. Queens, NY

Productive mental disorder is not, of course, what the redevelopment gurus want from art. No recent guru has been more influential among city planners than Richard Florida, an urban-studies academic superstar who went mainstream with his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he suggests that cities interested in becoming prosperous should focus on attracting artists and gay people rather than companies. Arguing that twenty-first-century white-collar professionals are unprecedentedly creative and that creativity is the fount from which “new technologies, new industries, new wealth and all other good economic things flow,” Florida declared the existence of a “creative class” that has the power to attract companies to the cities it decides to call home. Members of the creative class want to live in diverse, tolerant places filled with other creative people, so even if they’re not artists, they want to feel that art is around, and even if they’re not gay, they seek out high levels of ambient gayness. The creative class also likes bike paths.

It’s true that Florida never outright argued that cities like Evansville might be able to remake themselves as San Francisco or Seattle or Austin by attracting gays and artists, but over the course of the past decade he has been paid thirty-five thousand dollars per speaking gig to travel to cities like Evansville and imply as much, and he and his wife run a lucrative consulting company that teaches cities, companies, and other organizations how to implement his ideas. (Florida is also a University of Toronto professor and head of the school’s Martin Prosperity Institute, and he is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.) Evansville is investing prominently in the arts, of course, and it is building a forty-two-mile Greenway for cyclists and pedestrians, in spite of there being no evidence that the creative class’s arrival is imminent. When Skyler York was giving me a tour of Haynie’s Corner and the adjacent neighborhoods from a city planner’s perspective, he brought up Florida’s name and the concept of the creative class without my mentioning either. He talked about a study Florida had done regarding gays in San Francisco, how much disposable income they had and how accordingly crucial they were to urban development.

When Evansville first set out to revitalize Haynie’s Corner, in the mid-2000s, city officials looked to nearby Paducah, Kentucky, where a program employing Florida’s logic was then being lionized by the national media. Starting in the early 2000s, Paducah began offering incentives, tax breaks, and subsidized mortgages to artists who were willing to move to its derelict Lower Town area. By 2006, an estimated seventy artists from all over the United States had moved to the neighborhood, renovating abandoned and dilapidated housing and setting up galleries. In an ABC News feature on the program’s initial success, Tom Barnett, Paducah’s city planner, attributed the neighborhood’s turnaround to the presence of its new residents’ creativity. “Artists are the kind of folks who see what can be,” he said. “They see potential, and we knew that was what it was going to take when they came in to see the neighborhood in its current condition.”

Really, though, what the artists saw were stately old homes with prices starting at one dollar, thanks to the city’s intervention. What Paducah needed from the artists was not vision but financial commitments, promises to renovate the houses and set up arts-related businesses in them. In many cases the artists had to be willing to put more money into the houses than they were likely to be worth anytime soon. A starving Picasso wouldn’t have qualified for a house in Lower Town, but a comfortably retired hobbyist might have. And even the retired hobbyist might have needed boom-era notions about real estate—namely, that prices move in only one direction, and that art in the vicinity magically increases them—to rationalize pulling the trigger on a house in a Paducah slum.

In 2008, Evansville hired the program’s architect, Barnett, as its DMD head, and he set out to adapt the model for Haynie’s Corner. But by 2009 Evansville’s newspaper, the Courier & Press, was reporting that the situation in Paducah had begun to deteriorate, as you might imagine. The number of artists in Lower Town had fallen to around fifty, and many of the galleries that had sprouted in the program’s early years had closed. “Some artists have left because of health problems, some have just closed galleries and found other jobs to pay for their house, and some have sold their homes,” reporter Roger McBain wrote. “At least four have turned their keys and their mortgages over to the bank and walked away.”

Evansville continued to emphasize the presence of artists in Haynie’s Corner without limiting its subsidized housing offers to artists. The DMD, according to York, is willing to help people of any occupation get into the properties it owns, so long as they have a viable business plan and/or can qualify for loans. As we drove around the neighborhood, York pointed out a house that the DMD helped a woman with a soap-making business purchase; a palatial house that a man with plans to start a B&B was able to buy for an incongruously small sum; and one of the new houses, only a handful of which have been purchased, occupied by a Jaguar-driving teacher of culinary arts.

With the redevelopment stalled, Barnett and the DMD were looking for new ways to draw attention to Haynie’s Corner, and they settled on the idea of a sculpture contest. York was able to “creatively finance” the prize money for Sculpt EVV using what he called “riverboat money”—taxes collected from the riverfront casino, which are not subject to the same oversight as other public monies. He had already secured funding to get new sidewalks poured in the area, and he was able to piggyback onto that funding to get the concrete pads for the contest poured at the same time.

The pads were never about the art, he told me. The point in pouring them was to allow the people he was working with, and the organizations he hoped would help out with Sculpt EVV, to visualize an art event in the area. “It’s not about the art,” he said. “Art is just another tool for economic sustainability.”

Best Of All Possible Worlds (2012). Evansville, Indiana. Photograph by Saul Melman

Best Of All Possible Worlds (2012). Evansville, Indiana

“It was like an apparition,” Hilary Braysmith, the art historian who directed Sculpt EVV, said of Melman’s contest entry. “The universe just opened up and left this door. It picked up the light and changed colors. It was a different experience at different times of day.” Braysmith compared Best of All Possible Worlds to the Vietnam War Memorial and The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist revision of The Last Supper, saying that it has changed her idea of what public art can accomplish.

People were drawn to Melman’s sculpture in a way they weren’t to the work of the other eleven finalists, according to Braysmith. She mentioned, as did other local artists and residents I talked to, the fact that Melman took the neighbors’ concerns seriously and got to know them. Braysmith also remarked on how uncannily appropriate, in architectural terms, Melman’s sculpture was. Whether due to chance or standardization in the early-twentieth-century American construction industry—Melman bought his original doors, including the one he used as a mold for the Evansville sculpture, at an apartment-salvage place near his studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn—the sculpture matched the front door of Rena Meriweather’s house, right next door.

People interacted with Best of All Possible Worlds, as Melman had hoped they would, not as high art but as part of the neighborhood. Someone placed a rolled-up newspaper in front of it. Someone put a FedEx delivery notice on it. Someone left a note: “Cathy, I keep knocking, but you’re never home. Please call, Corey.”

Braysmith and Sculpt EVV announced on June 9 that Best of All Possible Worlds was the Purchase Award winner, making it a foundational element in the city of Evansville’s public sculpture collection. Melman collected his twenty grand and gave a phone interview to the Courier & Press. “I want people to think about the past and the future,” he said in a story published on June 16, “the changes in the neighborhood, people they may have known, the houses that may have been there before and might be there in the future.”

Such was possibly the thinking of the person who, sometime between eight in the morning and three in the afternoon on June 26, smashed Best of All Possible Worlds to bits.

Scene from Haynie’s Corner. Evansville installation of Best of All Possible Worlds. Photograph by Saul Melman

Scene from Haynie’s Corner. Evansville installation of Best of All Possible Worlds. (2012)

Destroying Melman’s door required concerted effort. Fragile as it may have looked—from a distance you would suppose that it was made of glass—its plastic was the kind used for the signs in front of burger joints and banks and chain stores, and these frequently withstand hurricanes. He used industrial-grade fittings and bolts, stuff that’s rated for shipbuilding, to anchor it to the ground. You could crack one of Melman’s doors, probably with a hammer, certainly with a sledgehammer or an ax. If you worked away at it with your feet, kicking it repeatedly, you might be able to crack it and then crack it some more, finally turning it into the pile of plastic shards that York showed me when I visited.

It happened in daylight. It happened while public attention was still focused on the contest, and on Melman’s sculpture in particular. In symbolic terms the door was peaking, so this was the perfect time to make a symbolic statement by smashing it.

Evansville, following Richard Florida, wanted art that could heal, that could restore a particular kind of order, but Melman’s sculpture, to its credit, acted like art. That it was destroyed therefore seems like a compliment. Short of catching the perpetrator and soliciting his views, it is, of course, impossible to verify this reading of events. But I quizzed a number of Evansvillians on the subject anyway.

Braysmith and York spoke of disgruntled artists in the area, of people unhappy with the changes in the neighborhood, while insisting on the isolated nature of the act. York told me he wanted to believe that it was meaningless vandalism, but that he thought there was probably more to it than that. Soon after the sculpture was demolished, the city’s signs advertising the arts-district redevelopment, including the one with the “GENTRIFIE” graffiti, came down.

Alex Kapteyn, a twentysomething transplant from Worcester, Massachusetts, who lives in Haynie’s Corner and tends bar at one of the few drinking establishments in Evansville’s downtown, at first seemed to support the notion that the destruction of Melman’s sculpture was obviously purposeful. In a July 8 guest editorial for the Courier & Press, she applauded those who staged the contest but also urged them to remember that residents “have watched as their neighbors’ homes have been foreclosed on, sold, and torn down one after another” and that the twenty thousand dollars paid out to Melman would perhaps have been enough to save the house that had been demolished to make way for his sculpture.

When I met with Kapteyn in person, though, she backtracked on her interpretation, presumably having heard from dissenters since she’d written the editorial. Now, in September, she would say only that she believed Sculpt EVV, which she loved and totally supported, was “deepening the lines and divisions in the neighborhood.” She did not argue with her fiancé, Joe Lattner, when he dismissed the notion that the sculpture’s destruction represented anything more than dumb vandalism. “It’s like putting fine china in a daycare,” Lattner, also a bartender, said of the decision to hold Sculpt EVV in Haynie’s Corner. When I mentioned how hard it would be to break the door, that it actually wasn’t much like fine china at all, he maintained that this was exactly the sort of fact likely to provoke a dumb vandal, to make him more determined.

Danny Baumgart, owner of the bar where Kapteyn, Lattner, and I were talking, echoed many of the complaints Melman had heard from neighbors and passersby as he was installing his sculpture. Baumgart seemed to have spent a great deal of time thinking about what was wrong with the city’s redevelopment effort, which he characterized as ham-handed and a total failure due almost entirely to Tom Barnett. Barnett tried to use the Paducah arts-district cookie cutter without regard for the situation here, and he didn’t even bother to conceal his prejudices against renters, who made up the overwhelming majority of the neighborhood’s population, and against artists, who were supposed to move in and fix everything. How was it a surprise that the plan didn’t work out?

Out on the street I talked to a fit, diminutive guy named Alonzo who was walking somewhere with a friend. Alonzo told me that his friend, who faintly nodded but said not a word, had recently moved back to town from Texas and didn’t know what was going on in the neighborhood. Though Alonzo didn’t have an opinion on the art, he was completely in favor of what he called “the improvements in the neighborhood.” “I’m happy to see the people moving in,” he said. “They’re not just coming in because of cheap rent and a place to stay. They want to improve the neighborhood. They’re invested in it.”

Sean Johnson, a dreadlocked guy in his late teens or early twenties, was fiddling with a smartphone under a fruit tree in his mother’s front yard. When I asked him what he thought about the art, he began pointing in the direction of individual pieces, some of which were within eyeshot, telling me which ones he liked and which ones he didn’t. He liked “the dogs” (Sue Berkey’s Running Dog, which consists of bright-red animation-still silhouettes of a running dog) and the “stick house” (Wade Kramm’s Craft Stick House, a giant version of a Popsicle-stick house). He didn’t like the sculpture directly adjacent to his mother’s yard, Jonathan Hils’s Emperor’s New Clothes, a sort of cancerous tuber made of silvery wires that won the People’s Choice Award. “I don’t see the point of it,” he said, and I thought I knew what he meant. Possibly intentionally, “Emperor’s New Clothes” was almost content-free, a computer-generated abstraction made real, whereas the sculptures Johnson preferred more resembled layered jokes. Melman’s sculpture would have been visible from the lawn chair where Johnson was sitting, but he had no memory of it. I asked about the houses that were being torn down, and he said, “Oh yeah, it was time. They needed to go.”

George Frazier and Velma Holland, who appeared to be in late middle age, were sitting on a low wall facing a large fountain that’s the focal point of a public plaza adjacent to Baumgart’s bar. “The neighborhood is 100 percent better,” Frazier said. “This used to be a bad area, but people aren’t scared anymore. I like the new people coming in, people are mixing, and that’s good.” Holland agreed, saying she used to live in the apartments directly behind where she was sitting. “There used to be prostitutes all through here,” she said, pointing. “It was a bad area.” Both of them echoed Sean Johnson, saying that the demolished houses had needed to come down.

I had another conversation on the plaza later that day, with a guy in his mid-to-late thirties. He was straddling a mountain bike, his shoulder against a lamppost, and as I approached him, his stare got more and more incredulous. Once I was within a few feet of him, he pretended to pull a gun out from under his bike helmet.

“Stick ᾽em up,” he said, pointing his cocked finger at me and smiling. There was a druggy film over his eyes.

I asked what he thought about the demolition of houses and the arts-based redevelopment, and he had no idea what I was talking about. I asked him how long he’d lived in the neighborhood, and he pointed to the spot where he used to catch the school bus as a first-grader, right behind us, the same general area where Velma Holland had said the prostitutes used to hang out. His eyes beneath their glassiness were active and laughing. He was wearing two collared knit shirts and, under his bike helmet, a thick fleece skullcap. The temperature was above eighty degrees. Under the skullcap he had on early-᾽90s-style headphones. Had he noticed the neighborhood getting any better or worse recently?

“Oh yeah,” he said. “The neighborhood’s a lot better. People are out more. People are out on the streets.”

I asked if he’d be willing to tell me his name.

“No.”

“Not even your first name?” I said.

“Call me Mike,” he said.

“OK.”

“Listen,” he said. “You people got to learn to stop asking people’s names. Even if I walk up to a woman on the street, I don’t ask names, because what if she walks down the street to a policeman and says I tried to assault her? They use it against you, man. You can’t go around asking people’s names.”

“OK.”

“Let’s get back to where we were, then.”

“So you don’t have any opinions about the sculptures?” I said.

“Sculptures?”

In all, twelve sculptures, the smallest one about the size of a podium and the biggest one the size of a cabin, had materialized about four months ago in the neighborhood “Mike” had spent his whole life in. Did it seem like something to be suspicious of, a bunch of art all of a sudden appearing in vacant lots?

“I haven’t noticed anything like that,” he said. “But listen. What magazine do you write for? Are any of the Kardashians in it? Kim? Khloé? Any of Bruce Jenner’s kids? What about Lindsay Lohan?”

“So you feel like things in the neighborhood are looking up?”

“Yeah, but we need a store. There’s a lot of people immobilized in this neighborhood.”

“Immobilized?”

“They’ve been immobilized by the police, DUIs, so they can’t get out. They can’t leave the neighborhood to do their shopping.”

“Ah, OK,” I said. “A grocery store is the main thing that’s missing here.”

“I like the bike trail,” he said.

“Oh, sure.” He was on a bike, after all. “The Greenway, you mean?” There was a stretch of it near here, along the Ohio River. “You like to ride your bike on the riverfront?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I like it, but I heard the riverfront in Kentucky is a lot nicer. I haven’t been over there yet, but from what I’ve seen on TV, it’s real nice.”

The remains of Best Of All Possible Worlds (2012).  Evansville, Indiana. Photograph by Saul Melman

The remains of Best Of All Possible Worlds (2012). Evansville, Indiana.

Melman, for his part, saw the destruction of his sculpture as something approaching a continuation of the art experience itself. “I was disappointed, but I wasn’t entirely surprised,” he told me. “I wanted the sculpture to have its own sovereignty. In this particular case that meant allowing it to be vulnerable. Its breaking isn’t the end, it’s just another turn in the story.”

A week after Melman’s sculpture was demolished, a second piece of public art in Evansville bit the dust. This one, a twelve-foot-long, two-hundred-pound copper fish suspended thirty feet in the air from a leaning utility pole, had been a fixture on the Greenway since 1998. Someone—likely more than one person—sawed through the utility pole and stole the fish, presumably to sell the copper. “Depending on the quality,” Max Roll of the Courier & Press reported, “a pound of copper goes for as much as $2.10 at local scrap yards.”

Also that summer, a New York art dealer named Arlan Ettinger placed a phone call to the Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science. Ettinger had a client who wanted to price some of Picasso’s gemmaux, translucent paintings made by meticulously gluing layers of differently shaped, colored, and textured glass together and firing them in an oven. As Ettinger studied paper trails related to the fifty gemmaux Picasso made between 1954 and 1956, he saw that one of them, Femme assise au chapeau rouge, appeared to have been in the holdings of the Evansville Museum since 1968.

“What Picasso?” the museum employee replied.

Ettinger figured that the museum didn’t have the piece after all and that he would have to get his pricing information elsewhere. But staffers at the museum began looking through storage rooms, and, sure enough, they found the framed gemmail (the singular form of gemmaux), still in its original packing crate.

“I pretty much know the lay of the land here, but this was a total surprise,” the museum’s executive director, John Streetman, told Will Higgins of the Indianapolis Star.

“You could almost hear champagne corks popping in the background,” Ettinger said of the call he got from Streetman after the discovery. “I don’t know if embarrassed is the right word, but maybe amazed, thrilled.”

Ettinger estimated the value of Femme assise au chapeau rouge at thirty to forty million, and the Evansville Museum’s board decided that it was too valuable for them to keep. They couldn’t justify the security and insurance that would be required if they were to show it to the public. “Evansville’s Picasso is surely the most spectacular artwork to ever come through town,” Higgins wrote. “But only a handful of museum insiders got so much as a peek at it.” The board voted for deaccession—selling it—and the gemmail was shipped out of town in secrecy, before the news of its discovery broke.

Mark Lane lives in Missoula, Montana. His writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Denver Quarterly, the New Orleans Review, Harp & Altar, and more.

All photos courtesy of Saul Melman.

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list for periodic announcements about online exclusives and the occasional deal.