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What is public art? Who funds it, owns it, and shapes it? Who does it serve? And why is it important? We try to answer some of these questions by looking at an example of public art that never came to be - Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum.

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Sarah: : This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought you by Squarespace.

I was recently in Washington, DC, widely considered the epicenter of public art in America. And it got me thinking about what exactly public art is. Clearly, it has to exist in a public realm, in a place where people can usually access it for free. But from there, it gets a lot more complicated. Who are the decision makers behind public art? Who funds it, owns it, shapes it? Who decides where it goes and how long it remains? Who is this public in question?

The answer to those questions are different for every rusting sculpture and every peeling mural lurking around every corner. And the information about these works isn't even necessarily public, or even documented. Today, I want to look specifically at one example of public art that encapsulates many of these issues: a work of art that, as it happens, never came to be.

Fred Wilson is an artist originally from New York who began drawing attention in the early 1990s for works that encourage you to reconsider the way history is told and the way we collect and display art and objects. Like for his 1992 exhibition, "Mining the Museum," Wilson looked at the collection of the Maryland Historical Society and devised a new display of their objects, rearranging what was on view and bringing out items from storage.

His installation, "Metalwork, 1793 to 1880," presented ornate silver pitchers and tea cups alongside a pair of iron slave shackles. And another room brought together portrait busts of three white men, Napoleon, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson, alongside three empty black pedestals marked with the names of well-known African-American Marylanders, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, and Frederick Douglass, of whom there were no busts in the collection. Wilson's intervention tells the history of Maryland from an alternative perspective, including voices of the oppressed, rather than just the oppressors, and emphasizing that absences in the museum's collection.

Flash forward many years, important exhibitions, and accolades later, Wilson was invited in 2007 to create a public art project for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a bike and pedestrian path designed to connect neighborhoods within the city. He was invited by the Central Indiana Community Foundation, the main administrator of the trail project, which was funded by a combination of public and private money. For the project, Wilson focused on one of the city's many monuments downtown, the 1902 "Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument" that stands at the geographic center of the city. It was designed to honor the state's veterans of the American Civil War, as well as several previous wars, and includes two sculptural groupings called "War" and "Peace."

The "Peace" grouping features one of the city's few representations of an African-American man in the figure of an unnamed emancipated slave seated at the feet of Lady Peace. He is shirtless, shoeless, and holds broken shackles from his outstretched hand. It's typical of monuments from that time, depicting the freeman as passive and casting light instead on white emancipators, like this DC "Emancipation Memorial" from 1876 by Thomas Ball.

Wilson proposed to isolate the figure in the Indianapolis monument, to scan and recast him, and place him on his own two blocks east. The shackles would be removed. The figure would be tilted to a more upright, empowered position. And he would hold a flag representing the African diaspora. He would be removed from the context of others, seen on his own. Wilson titled the sculpture, "E Pluribus Unum," Latin for out of many, one, which is the motto on the shield behind the original figure on the monument. The artwork was to be sited in front of the city county building. About it, Wilson said in 2012, "The courts were there. And so many black men go through this building. I saw my sculpture as a positive storyline-- initially a sculptural representation of a 19th century former slave changed into a 21st century man representing the African diaspora. Its location coincidentally revealed the connection between slavery and incarceration."

Wilson and the project leaders held public meetings and made efforts to reach out to communities around Indianapolis to introduce the proposed artwork and the artist behind it. While no dissent arose immediately, in September 2010, Leroy Robinson wrote a letter to the editor of the "Indianapolis Recorder," voicing strong objections to the work, arguing the new sculpture would reinforce caricatures of African-Americans and pass on, quote, "another negative image from one generation to the next." Groups organized to counter the proposed artwork. And opposition was voiced from inside and outside of African-American communities.

While Wilson intended the new figure to be read as a positive one, as with his previous work, he dredges up painful history in the process. The meaning of the work was unclear to many, raising questions instead of answering them. The proposed sculpture met with a number of complex objections, including that there was insufficient transparency during the commissioning process, and that the location was insensitive. Others made suggestions of admired African-American individuals who would make better subjects for a sculpture. There were lots of meetings and lots of attempts to rectify the situation. But louder and louder voices were heard, all of which underlined the complicated history of race relations in Indianapolis. Wilson would later say, "I think many people saw it as something being put on them once again." There are many details I'm glossing over here. But the controversy led the Central Indiana Community Foundation to cancel the project in late 2011.

Do I wish the sculpture happened? Yes, but I also respect the opinions of those who opposed it. The sentiments voiced by Robinson and others highlighted a desire for public sculpture to do something in particular to engender positivity and not a mixture of emotions or unease, as Wilson's might have done. The dissent about the project was real and valid, and I respect it. And although the sculpture never materialized, I would argue "E Pluribus Unum" is still a work of public art. It exists in our renewed attention to the figure of the freed slave in the original monument.

When I look at the monument now, I not only zero in on that figure, but on its other problematic representations. I see it for what it is, what it says about its time. But more importantly, I see it for what it's not, except in December, when they dress it up like a tree. Then I'm just confused.

But "E Pluribus Unum" still exists in the dialogue that resulted in its cancellation and community members' realizations about what they look for in public sculpture, and how we read and interpret images. It exists in the discussions that still go on about it, in writings and in its Wikipedia entry, and in the artworks that have been made in the city since. The power of the empty pedestals in Wilson's "Mining the Museum" back in 1992 was in demonstrating absence. "E Pluribus Unum" functions similarly, remaining a strong presence even though you can't see it, perhaps because you can't see it.

For what it's worth, I was in middle school in Alabama in 1992 and never had the chance to see "Mining the Museum." But it's still ingrained in my memory and worldview, despite having only read about it and seen a few low res images.

Most of the time, public art just happens through the concerted effort of relatively small groups of interested parties, and without many people caring much or even noticing. How new public art gets made isn't always apparent. But with projects like this, one the veil is lifted a bit, showing us how these decisions can get made and unmade, showing that there are individuals behind these things, and that we can all support these projects, protest them, or make our own new ones. And art that is public isn't just about its whereabouts or ownership, or even physical existence, really. It's about the collective elaboration of meaning.

If the sculpture had been made, we would have had more of a chance to work through that together and to see how interpretations of it would change over time. The artist alone doesn't decide what it means. The viewer, or institution, or curator, or video blogger doesn't either. The meaning isn't fixed. It isn't located in just one place. And it changes. "E Pluribus Unum" is a powerful idea, and one that will continue to affect the public domain. Out of many, there are many. And for me, that's what Wilson was saying all along.

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