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Art Generates Controversy In Johnson County

Prompted by a recent visit to the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens with her family, an area resident has started circulating a petition to remove one of the sculptures. The work is called "Accept or Reject" (note: a brass plaque also lists the title as "Choice") by sculptor 余畅 Yu Chang, an artist who also reportedly directs the Guangzhou Sculpture Academy. Overland Park officials say that, at this time, there are no plans to remove it from the Arboretum.

Yu Chang's sculpture is part of the designated China-U.S. Sculpture Park at the Arboretum; it was dedicated on  November 3, 2011. Eleven pieces by 6 Chinese artists were installed including Yu's "Accept or Reject." The works were a gift to the city of Overland Park, Kan.

"International Cultural Exchange" Through Sculpture

Sculptor Kwan Wu, of Olathe, initiated the idea of the China-U.S. Sculpture Park, the first phase of what's conceived as an International Sculpture Park. Kwan moved to the United States from China more than two decades ago; he says he envisioned the project as a way to spark “international cultural exchange.”

Kwan is known for his works in Kansas City sculpting the life-sized statues of baseball players in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, as well as the bronze sculpture of Kansas City Royals player George Brett at Kauffman Stadium.

Johnson County Lifestyle provided this background:

When internationally known sculptor Kwan Wu, who emigrated from China and now lives in Olathe, approached the Foundation (Arts & Recreation Foundation of Overland Park) with the possibility of artists donating sculpture and the Chinese government helping to cover shipping costs, the concept of a sculpture garden went from being a dream to a reality. Ash Grove Charitable Foundation made a grant to help cover the installation costs, the City of Overland Park provided the installation labor, and the Arts & Recreation Foundation did all of the leg work to get the sculptures to the Arboretum. The China-U.S. Sculpture Garden committee, which has a local component and a China component, also helped with the project.

A city document listing frequently asked questions states that "an International Sculpture Garden would give the City a distinctive, unique, enriching community asset...echo our community's international heritage...as well our City's unsurpassed commitment to the arts."

Visitors Respond to Artwork

On May 17, 2012, Joanne Hughes of Stilwell, Kan. posted this petition on the website change.org. The request asks the Overland Park City Council and Mayor Carl Gerlach to "Remove the Inappropriate Sculpture at the Overland Park Arboretum." To date, she has collected 1841 signatures (updated: 5/25/12).

Hughes writes this in her petition request:

The sculpture is of a headless naked woman with her breasts exposed, taking a picture of herself. The message this piece sends to the children and young adults in our community has the potential to be destructive. With all the problems we are having with sexting in our youth culture, do we really want to be encouraging children and teenagers to take nude photos of themselves? In addition, there is no warning of the sculpture's offensive nature for parents, teachers, and adults wishing to avoid something like this. The audience at the Overland Park Arboretum is not the appropriate audience for this piece of art. This piece is too mature for young eyes, and does not belong in a nature park where children frequently visit.

In an email, China-U.S. Sculpture Park organizer Kwan Wu wrote: "Through the piece of 'Choice', the artist, Yu Chang, wants to express his philosophy or idea that if people focus on one thing that naturally he may ignore some other things at the same time."

Response from City Officials

Overland Park Arts Coordinator Julie Bilyea says there are 230 pieces in the city's art collection, valued at an estimated total of $3.5 million. Thirty-three of those are located at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens (this does not include the temporary sculptures created by Kansas City Art Institute sophomore sculpture students, on display through October 1). 

"The process was transparent, including images of all the artwork," says Bilyea of the works on display as part of the China-U.S. Sculpture Park.

"The artist (Yu Chang) told us that the point of the piece ("Accept or Reject") is that the virtual world removes control over one's image. He is depicting a woman who's making the conscious choice to ignore her mind, soul, and identity."

Bilyea adds that the works "are not in a permanent location." The sculpture park was planned in two stages: the first, to establish pieces at the Arboretum and add more, including artists from around the world, over the first three years; the second stage, to expand as an International Sculpture Park into the Kemper Farm area west of the Arboretum.

According to Bilyea, the city has issued a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) for a company to create landscape design, including paths meeting the Disabilities Act (ADA) standards for accessibility. A timeline has not yet been established for the expansion.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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