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Artwork in Colorado Springs meant to encourage conversation instead sparks controversy

September 13, 2017 Updated: September 14, 2017 at 6:53 am
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The front of City Hall is framed by a sculpture that has some people talking. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Irony abounds as a piece of art meant to encourage civil discussions generates its own debate.

"Double Bench III" was built out of two-by-fours and placed in front of City Hall's west steps in June. It's part of Downtown Ventures' Art on the Streets Program, but since many people have complained about the bench's location, the organization is looking for a new site, said Claire Swinford, urban engagement manager for the nonprofit organization.

Protests and marches regarding health care, net neutrality, white supremacy, LGTBQ rights and other topics have made their way past the bench. Activists have climbed atop the wooden structure with bullhorns; some have used it to rest while others have used it as a meeting place.

Backlash about the bench itself was unexpected because it was put in front of City Hall to offer those who disagree an opportunity to speak with each other, Swinford said.

"It's a way for people who are literally facing opposite directions to nevertheless have a conversation," she said.

But many feel the bench is in the way and inhibits groups who wish to protest in front of City Hall, Swinford said.

"It's the placement that's controversial, not the actual content," she said.

The Colorado Springs Socialists even started a formal petition on change.org to have the bench moved.

"City Hall has an ugly bench right in front of it," the online petition reads. "As far as we can tell, it serves no other purpose than to interrupt protests and rallies that regularly occur in front of City Hall."

A representative from the organization couldn't be immediately reached for comment. As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition had 26 signatures, many of which are accompanied by criticisms of the bench.

Not a protest goes by City Hall without a complaint about the bench, Councilman Bill Murray said. He estimates he's heard hundreds of complaints - and the irony is not lost on him.

Murray chuckled, recalling a pro-life advocate and a pro-choice advocate yelling at each other with the bench between them.

"They weren't willing to sit down and have that kind of discussion," Murray said.

And while he likes the bench, he said, the complaints are valid.

"It still is a barrier to the openness of City Hall," he said. "We should never put anything, artwork or otherwise, that impedes the right of citizens to congregate in front of City Hall and make their protests known."

Murray suggested moving the bench half a block south on Nevada, so it's still in front of City Hall but less of an obstruction.

"I'll get everybody in the building to lift that sucker up and, without damaging it, move it over," he said with a laugh.

Swinford said there isn't a timeline for moving the bench, but the organization is scouting new public locations where the piece can still serve its purpose. Once the group has a few options, it'll reach out to the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist, Matthias Neumann, and ask for his input.

Neumann said the bench is a part of a body of work called "basics" that has more than a dozen public installations in New York, Colorado, California, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan and Kansas. He said he's followed the controversy over the bench "with interest."

Art on the Street is privately funded and receives no tax dollars, Swinford noted. And despite the bench controversy, it has accomplished the project's three main goals: adding interest to the landscape, commenting on the environment and fostering a discussion, she said.

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