By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
Updated 2:56 p.m. Friday
LINCOLN — Outrage over the city’s plans to award $500,000 for a piece of art from a man who filmed himself killing a dog in the 1970s has prompted Lincoln’s mayor to end negotiations with the New York artist.
The board overseeing the construction of the West Haymarket development in downtown Lincoln, which is anchored by a $186 million basketball arena, had been scheduled to vote on the art contract Friday afternoon.
That is, until the local paper wrote about how the artist, Tom Otterness, made a film in 1977 in which he rescues a dog from a shelter, ties it up, shoots it and calls it art, in the form of a movie he called “Shot Dog Film.” The 12-foot-long train is just one of several art pieces included in the overall $376 million development, of which $1.5 million is budgeted for art.
Community backlash prompted Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler to end negotiations with the artist. Beutler was aware of Otterness’s animal cruelty past, but told the local paper that people need to be forgiven, and that Otterness has repeatedly apologized.
“We ought to just accept him as being a fine artist and be grateful for the work he does,” Beutler told the Lincoln Journal Star.
But Lincolnites weren’t in a forgiving mood, and immediately pounced on the story with comments indicating that some crimes just aren’t forgivable. Within hours, the mayor’s office had taken the contract off the arena board’s agenda (the mayor is one of three members of the board).
The Brooklyn-based artist is a Wichita native known for creating whimsical bronze sculptures of people and animals that are often bought with public funds and placed near schools, playgrounds, parks and libraries, according to the New York Daily News, which unmasked the artist’s past in 2011. About a dozen of his pieces can be found in New York and have made appearances in Europe, Asia and the Thanksgiving Day parade, according to the Daily News.
“Thirty years ago, when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for,” the Daily News reported Otterness saying in 2008. “Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”
Otterness’s past came back to haunt him a couple of years ago when a Lower Manhattan library was about to accept a $750,000 donated lion sculpture.
While Otterness’s sculptures appear cute and friendly, the Daily News noted that if you look closely, they often have class warfare subtexts. For example, a subway station sculpture portrays fat cats with bags of money rolling over workers, an angry cop leering at a bag lady and a rat chewing on a penny.
Other pieces depict a wolf with mortgages in his pocket circling three little pigs, and a “cash cow” that eats dollars and poops pennies, according to the Daily News.
“Otterness continues to be the angry artist who once executed a defenseless creature,” the Daily News concluded. “His work remains a mean-spirited comment on the evils of capitalism.”
And yet, Lincoln was set to pay him a half-million bucks for a 12-foot-long bronze train using $200,000 from its arena art budget, plus $300,000 from tax increment financing — an urban renewal financing tool that’s normally used to replace aging infrastructure, not buy sculptures. As part of the arrangement with Lincoln, Otterness was going to donate $25,000 to the Capital Humane Society.
But Friday afternoon, Beutler released a statement saying the West Haymarket development has united the community “like never before” and he wants to keep that momentum alive.
“I do not want the choice of this artist to create bad feelings about the arena and West Haymarket, which have been and will continue be extremely positive for our city,” he said in the statement. “Art plays an important role in our society. It is often intended to provoke thought and reaction, stimulate discussion and expand our humanity. But the artist’s past behavior in this instance has created a level of division in the community that is not acceptable. At this time, it is in the best interests of the city to discontinue the contract process and continue to move forward in a positive and unified direction.”
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