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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Light Rain
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The city takes its time with public art for Frances Plaza
Waiting for water

Proposal by Myklebust + Sears.
Proposal by Myklebust + Sears.
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The selection committee formed under the auspices of the Madison Arts Commission has narrowed down its preference for the new water feature that will grace Frances Plaza. The committee said it preferred Spokane artist Tom Askman's redesign of the centrally located space abutting State Street. It also kept Stockholm, Wis.-based husband-and-wife duo Myklebust + Sears in the running.

But this is Madison, a city whose proclivity for debating issues of every stripe for years on end is well documented. Whatever the merits of the two large water-spitting cones that dominate Askman's proposal or the pair of inquisitive badgers (no, I'm not kidding) roaming Myklebust + Sears' meditation on the city's lakes, the business of picking semifinalists for the $300,000 public-art project is anything but finished.

Karin Wolf, program administrator of the Madison Arts Commission, explains that after the selection committee made its choice, the arts commission came back and said it would like pieces by artists Roger Stoller and Howard Ben Tré to be considered as well. Wolf says the commission felt that "those artists' proposed designs would retain a relevance into the future. That they were more timeless."

Not that either the selection committee or the arts commission has the ultimate say on the matter. In the end, the State Street Design Project Oversight Committee, which is overseeing all aspects of the street's current redesign, will recommend one of the proposed water features to the Common Council for final approval. Wolf hopes that the oversight committee will make its choice prior to its next scheduled meeting on July 24. But she is unsure if that will happen.

Asked whether she's becoming frustrated by a byzantine selection process that's already well into its sixth month, Wolf says, "I'm not frustrated, nor would I say this is typical. I'm more like a kid on Christmas who really wants to unwrap her presents."

Aside from esthetics, the proposals in the running for Frances Plaza are being judged on two other key criteria. First, says Wolf, the winning design should act as a kind of "beacon" that will draw locals and visitors alike to State Street. Second, and just as important, she says it shouldn't invite climbing or other more extreme physical interaction by the partying undergrads and children who'll pass it every year by the tens of thousands.

Wolf is concerned that the oversight committee will worry too much about how passers-by will abuse the piece. She emphasizes that even a winning design can be changed.

"I want the oversight committee to understand that this is a collaborative project," she says. "This is just a conception that they're looking at. We can work with any of these artists to make it more in line with our needs.... I'd hate for them to disqualify any design that could be easily remedied."

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