Boise's leaders are searching for their version of Maya Lin.
Lin was a college senior and a mostly unknown artist when a committee chose her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981. She had no experience producing art on the scale of the wall that bears 58,000 names of dead or missing soldiers.
Still, her concept won over committee members. They shrugged off her lack of experience, and the wall was built.
Concept is the focus for Boise's new approach to finding a piece of art to stand in front of City Hall.
Experience, ability and qualifications were the guiding principles the first two times the city chose finalists for the $200,000 project. City Council members and art staffers wanted to make sure that whoever won the design competition had the chops to see it through.
Their criteria for finding Boise's iconic art excluded the state's own artists.
"Idaho artists may have great ideas, but they're not competitive because they haven't done it before," said Karen Bubb, the city's public arts manager.
What Boise got instead were qualified, respected artists from places such as Houston, Atlanta and Seattle. The problem was that the finalists' designs just weren't quite right.
This concept was too industrial, that one too corporate. Another raised technical concerns. None really captured what Boise is all about.
"It's almost like defining why we love Boise," said Maryanne Jordan, City Council president and a member of the most recent selection panel. "Sometimes it can be difficult to articulate, but as you go through any given day, you just kind of know why. Whether it's a view or an experience or an exchange with another person ... it reinforces that feeling of place for you, and that's what we're looking for in this piece."
'APPROPRIATE AND DESIRABLE'
Between March 2012 and May of this year, six finalists submitted nine concepts for an art installation at City Hall's plaza on Capitol Boulevard. All nine were ultimately rejected.
This time around, 60 percent of the points for selecting the winning bidder measure whether artists' concepts are "appropriate and desirable for City Hall Plaza."
Reham Aarti said the city finally has the right idea. Aarti was one of the few local artists who applied for a commission to build the art. She was frustrated by the city's original strategy, which she said amounted to a Catch-22 for locals.
"Yeah, none of us have done anything that big, but we're never going to get to if you don't let us," Aarti said. "If people have a chance to see what we're trying to do, I think that'll really help us. Because (the finalists) are outsiders. They don't get it. They don't know Boise. They don't have a feel for it. You know what I mean?"
The idea for redoing City Hall Plaza dates to June 2011. The city was facing a major remodel of its headquarters, located Downtown between Capitol Boulevard, 6th Street, Idaho Street and Main Street.
The fountain on the plaza's north side leaks into a parking garage below City Hall and needs to be removed. The council voted to redo the plaza's aesthetics as part of the remodeling.
It allotted $100,000 to the project from the city's public art fund. Capital City Development Corp., Boise's urban renewal agency, put in $100,000 of its own money for the project.
In August 2011, the city published a nationwide solicitation for artists interested in building a piece of art at the plaza's north end, including a fountain or other water feature.
Three months later, a selection panel reviewed applications from 40 artists. Only three of them were Idahoans, none of whom had experience with art projects on the scale Boise was looking for.
The selection panel picked three finalists. All were respected and accomplished artists. The panel rejected all of their proposals and asked them for a second round of ideas.
In May 2012, the artists submitted three new proposals. But the City Council rejected the selection panel's choice: a collection of rocks that would appear to levitate on geysers of water.
That led to another round of proposals. The city removed the water feature requirement and moved the piece's location to the south side of the plaza, but used the same evaluation criteria as before.
In March of this year, a new selection panel picked three finalists - again, none from Idaho - from a field of 54 applicants. Five of the original applicants were Idahoans.
In May, the panel and City Council rejected all of the finalists' concepts. That brings us to the new approach.
This time around, the city is asking for designs upfront. The new call for proposals, which the city has dubbed "Plan C," is similar to the process that found Maya Lin more than 30 years ago.
It's also a way to give local artists a boost.
"This process allows for artists who have not had the experience of doing a $200,000, large-scale project to put forward their ideas, thus giving Idaho artists who are willing to do the work to develop a proposal a better shot at getting the commission, but also keeps it open to a national pool," according to a memo from Boise's Arts and History Department.
Limiting bids to local artists would be illegal. For projects valued at more than $50,000, state law requires the city to accept applications from any qualified bidder.
Besides that, the city doesn't want its own artists to face that kind of discrimination when they enter competitions in other states.
Boise has taken other steps to encourage local artists. The city held a workshop Sept. 30 to talk to artists about what's expected and how to make a strong application. Bubb said about 30 artists attended. A second workshop is scheduled for Oct. 21.
Bubb said the city is willing to help artists navigate the process of turning their ideas into reality - another advantage for locals. But that doesn't mean local artists' concepts will receive preferential treatment, she said.
"We need to look for what is the best project for City Hall, irrespective of where they're from," Bubb said. "It's important to not be provincial in that aspect. ... But, that said, doing this as a call for proposals is an opportunity for artists to jump scale who have not had that opportunity before."
Artists have until Nov. 8 to submit their proposals, which the city will then unveil Nov. 12. Boise still wants a sculpture, Bubb said, but other elements may be considered.
"It doesn't have to be a single monolithic object," she said.
Bubb admits the new process might not attract any acceptable proposals. If that's the case, she said, the city will start over - again.
Though Boise has already spent between $10,000 and $12,000 to find the right art, it's better than spending $200,000 on a piece no one likes, she said.
Aarti said she'll apply for a third time and feels pretty good about her chances of winning the competition. Whether she does or not, this moment could be a turning point for Boise's artist community, she said.
"We're kind of teetering on this edge right now where a lot of us are still - I mean daily - having to re-fight this daily battle of why is art important," Aarti said. "It's not just you get to make pretty stuff. You actually have to be able to answer that question when people get angry about public art."
Sven Berg: 377-6275