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The meeting last Wednesday afternoon had gone on for almost an hour when Gary Brown, director of campus planning and landscape architecture at University of Wisconsin–Madison, said, “Let me address the so-called elephant in the room.”
The moment was at hand.
It was a meeting of the City of Madison’s Joint Campus Area Committee and was attended by various local government and university officials, as well as neighborhood leaders.
It was the kind of meeting that makes you appreciate the public service of the people who serve on committees while offering prayers of thanks that you are not one of them.
Still, I wasn’t going to miss this.
Earlier last week, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that a Detroit firm’s concept drawings for improvements to the Field House and adjacent north plaza did not include Nails’ Tales, the Donald Lipski sculpture that was erected — ahem — at the corner of Regent Street and Breese Terrace in November 2005.
Brown told the newspaper, “We don’t know what’s going to happen to the sculpture. It could stay. It could go.” The story mentioned the upcoming Wednesday meeting at which UW officials would present its new Field House/north plaza plan for discussion.
The meeting in a first-floor conference room of the WARF Building was less crowded with spectators than I thought it might be. In my nearly two decades as a daily newspaper columnist in Madison, no issue brought more reader reaction than when I originally wrote about Nails’ Tales. I revisited the subject here, here, here and again, with a Christmas wish in 2011, here.
While a few people claimed to like the sculpture — or at least defended the idea that public art has a right to be controversial — most readers sided with Hank Reese, who worked at Mickies Dairy Bar across the street from Nails’ Tales and early on was interviewed about it for a television newscast.
I asked Hank what he told the TV reporter.
“I was diplomatic and called it a monstrosity,” he said.
Last week’s Joint Campus Area Committee meeting began with a discussion about a proposed new parking garage on Linden Drive near the veterinary school.
While they talked about the parking garage, my mind drifted to the day — Nov. 3, 2005 — Nails’ Tales was unveiled. The official ceremony was at 4 p.m. but I got there hours earlier, while workers on an elevated crane were putting on the finishing touches.
It was interesting to sample early public opinion. My friend Jimmy Roach, brother of Madison Magazine columnist John Roach, was riding his bike on Regent Street and stopped to weigh in.
“The ugliest thing I have ever seen,” he said.
“Definitely phallic,” chimed in Joel DeSpain, now with the Madison Police Department but then covering the launch for WISC-TV 3.
Not everybody hated it. A young Edgewood College student walking by said, “It’s brilliant. Artists are supposed to be a little crazy. I think it captures the energy of football.”
Just prior to the 4 p.m. ceremony celebrating the sculpture’s completion, I had a chance to speak with Lipski, a UW–Madison grad who went on to prominence as a sculptor. He was a hard guy not to like — outgoing, animated, a bit impish. I asked Lipski if he was happy with Nails’ Tales.
“Pleased as can be,” he said.
Well, nobody’s perfect.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, once the parking garage discussion ended, they took up the Field House/north plaza improvement plan. Gary Brown spoke about new windows and doors for the Field House and some new roadside fencing. Then he got to the elephant in the room.
Brown said that while UW–Madison acknowledges there are “a handful of people who really love” Nails’ Tales, most do not. The preliminary plan is for the sculpture to be relocated or “decommissioned” — making it sound like a battleship — as part of the north plaza renovation.
Some of us had been waiting nearly 14 years to hear those words.
There were comments from committee members. A representative of the Vilas neighborhood (whom I will resist naming so as not to bring shame on his family and friends), said he felt “the neighborhood has moved into acceptance” where the sculpture was concerned.
I found myself wishing Hank Reese was alive to respond to that.
The Regent Street neighborhood representative, on the other hand, repeated what she's heard fmost often rom area residents: “When are you getting rid of that thing?”
The answer is, if current plans don’t change, late summer 2020.
The design for the new Field House and plaza calls for a campus gateway sign to wrap around the corner where the sculpture now resides.
It’s a beautiful sign.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.
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