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Selling Circles

The public art marketing racket

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Thomas Sayre makes his living selling circles, and from time to time, the occasional square. Government art bureaucrats love Sayre's circles and have paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars for them over the years.

They call them public art. The head of the Charlotte Area Transit System's public art program, which is buying $80,000 worth of discs from him for the South Corridor light rail line, called him brilliant last week. I agree with her. He is brilliant. Not a brilliant artist, but a brilliant marketer who is running one heck of a racket.

Take his cucumber phase, for instance. For a while there, Sayre, an artist from Raleigh, was stacking dozens of circular blocks of increasing or decreasing size on top of each other and selling them to various government agencies and the occasional private group for tens of thousands of dollars.

Most of these 10- to 20-foot cucumberesque sculptures bear a striking resemblance to each other in form, yet Sayre has a different spin for each one.

The legume-like stack of black concrete circles he created for Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta is supposed to represent "the mystery of night," Sayre says. Hundreds of miles away in St. Petersburg, Florida, a similar stack of circles by Sayre sits outside a fire station. Sayre claims that the sculpture, for which the St. Petersburg Public Art Commission paid $50,000, represents "the historical architectural element of a fire station hose tower." Outside a public building in Raleigh, a group of 24 skinnier cucumbers built from circles juts out of the ground. These, says Sayre, represent North Carolina's 24 largest cities. But again, it's basically the same piece over and over again, with a different intellectual explanation by the artist for what it means.

Then there was Sayre's big circle phase. Evidence of this can be found on the corner of Wendover and Randolph roads in Charlotte, where two massive earth-tone circles jut from the ground. You know -- the onion rings. Sayre says those structures, which he calls "Grandiflora," were inspired by the petals in the trees' seed pods. Yet he has different explanations for strikingly similar pieces elsewhere.

It's a pattern I found with several of the esteemed artists to whom CATS will be paying tens of thousands of dollars or more for art that more closely resembles mass-market gimmickry. I suppose these folks figure Charlotteans won't notice because they don't get out much. They're probably right.

Take the piece by Miami Beach artists Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, for instance. They're best known for a piece called "The Living Room" on North Miami Avenue. It's a larger than lifesize version of what looks like half of a dollhouse room, complete with a bench that's supposed to look like a huge sofa, a window and a bunch of red flowering wallpaper.

They'll be building one of these contraptions at the Archdale Drive station, but this time, the wallpaper will be Carolina blue with airplanes, the bench will be a gaudy yellow and the window will be round instead of square. Wow, what creativity!

In 2001, the two artists claimed that the Miami version of this piece was a "criticism of the lack of public space and its disappearance, of the privatization of space and of lack of opportunity in public spaces."

But miraculously, the money CATS will be paying the two for the Charlotte version seems to have soothed their angst. So they changed the color of the wallpaper and presto, they now say the Charlotte piece represents "a poetic event bridging dreams, memories and desires." Whatever.

Then there's Yuriko Yamaguchi, who will be doing sculptures at five rail stations. Yamaguchi will build a hanging piece that is basically a mass of wires with little golden nuggets hanging off them that seem to float in the air. They're pretty cool looking, and a definite improvement from the period when she was gluing random-shaped stuff to walls.

Her story of how she's contemplating the city's history as she creates her work here is enough to move an art bureaucrat to tears. She claims she's pondering a cotton branch representative of the city's history and that Charlotte images enter her thoughts as she creates the sculptures, stuff like dogwood trees, cola bottling, cars, flowers, churches and school buses. The sculptures she's creating will speak to transit users about life, she says.

The only problem is that the she keeps building what is essentially the same darn sculpture over and over, and they already hang in other galleries. In the past, she's claimed that they represent everything from a "model of atomic motion" to present-day cyber-culture. But, you know, they look just about the same.

It should surprise no one that a committee appointed by another committee appointed by CATS CEO Ron Tober selected these artists. I'd call them suckers, but I don't want to burn any bridges. I'm pretty good with a miter saw, and with four transit routes left to go they'll be needing more public art worth millions of dollars. If you dangled $50,000 in front of me, you'd be amazed what I could create with scrap wood and some superglue.

Contact Tara Servatius at


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