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Give the bird sculptures a chance: Our View

Aesthetic tastes will vary, but public art projects are worthwhile.

4:22 PM, Oct. 31, 2013  |  Comments
Metal bird sculptures have been installed with new landscaping at the median on Stewart Avenue in Wausau.
Metal bird sculptures have been installed with new landscaping at the median on Stewart Avenue in Wausau.
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Should we talk about the birds? The ones that are staring all of us down from the medians at the the Highway 52-Highway 51 interchange area on the west side of Wausau, the ones the city spent about $48,000 on as part of a larger, $112,000 project to beautify the city's main entrance?

They have certainly inspired conversation among our readers. Earlier this week, we published online and in print excerpts of conversations readers were having on our website and social media sites, and the conversation has continued to rage. By the very crude measures of online polls and comments, the majority opinion is against the birds, but there is a sizable contingent of vocal defenders of the project. It's a real debate.

Maybe that's what art is supposed to do.

We're not art critics, so we will refrain from passing our own aesthetic judgment on the pieces as sculpture. They are interesting pieces of locally made art, and as a flock, the 18 of them have a striking effect as a driver enters the city - though we expect that for most daily commuters, they will soon enough blend into the background, as any other piece of scenery does when you see it every day.

The questions, then, are these: Do the sculptures and the rest of the landscaping improve the impression new visitors will have when they drive into Wausau for the first time? Do they help to form Wausau's identity?

There's a good case that the answer to both questions is yes.

The west-side interchange getting off Highway 51 is probably the main way people come into Wausau. The aesthetic impression it makes on visitors does matter, and we disagree with critics who consider it a waste of city resources to work on beautifying it.

We know the city's budget is tight and taxes are too high, and there is a temptation to view any spending on non-essentials as wasteful. That's a bit simplistic. The city's general fund expenditures were almost $31 million in its last budget, meaning the bird sculptures themselves would account for about 0.01 percent of that spending; 0.03 percent if you account for landscaping and other costs of the overall project. How much tax relief, or economic development, or crimefighting does that buy us? Not much.

One of Wausau's key assets is the annual Birds in Art exhibit at the Woodson Art Museum. It brings thousands of tourists to town, and its reputation helps fuel visits to Wausau and to the Woodson all year long. Public art that highlights this could be a benefit.

There's a legitimate argument to be made that the city should have found a way to involve the public in this decision. But the birds aren't half bad, and they could end up helping to build a good reputation for Wausau.

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