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Landmark commission approves ‘Keep Austin Weird’ sculpture

Friday, January 28, 2022 by Kali Bramble

The Historic Landmark Commission approved plans for a public artwork installation on the southwest corner of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue this past Monday, but not before a heated dispute over the piece’s cultural merit.

Plans for the statue, a 12-foot optical illusion that, from the proper vantage point, reads “Keep Austin Weird,” came before the commission in 2018 as part of the design for the Scarbrough Building pocket park. At the time, the sculpture was pulled out and postponed over concerns about its appropriateness for the Congress Avenue Historic District, leading developers temporarily to back away from the project. 

While it continues to ruffle feathers, the installation has been given a second chance in a 6-3 vote of approval, with Chair Terri Myers and commissioners Carl Larosche and Blake Tollett opposed.

Staffers noted it was beyond the commission’s purview to evaluate the artistic merit of the work, but acknowledged that the case presented unique challenges. “Austin’s historic design standards do not include provisions for the review of public art,” Historic Preservation Officer Elizabeth Brummett said. “They do talk about the compatibility of streetscape design and materials with the surrounding district, but this is difficult to apply to a piece of art, as sometimes art may intentionally contrast its surroundings.”

Myers nevertheless argued that the sculpture would be a blight on Congress Avenue and the historic Scarbrough Building. “I think it’s inappropriate,” Myers said. “When we talk about additions to historic buildings, we ask that they be secondary and recede into the background. I think that it takes away from the district and building’s ability to convey a true sense of history, and I can’t more strongly state my objection.”

This time around, it appears Myers is in the minority. Architect Michele Van Hyfte expressed support for the installation on behalf of the Downtown Austin Alliance, noting that the sculpture would fulfill the organization’s goal of “supporting the preservation and recovery of downtown” through “activating public spaces.”

“It will provide a new engaging social media experience that will draw people to shop at nearby businesses and explore the rich cultural history of the Congress Avenue district,” Van Hyfte said.

Members of the commission also expressed support, with some acknowledging their opinions had softened in the three and a half years since the initial proposal. Commissioner Kevin Koch noted his reassurance that the sculpture was designed to be removable and that its license agreement was temporary, meaning it is subject to an annual renewal process that can be revoked by the city at any time.

“We want to be careful not to install art, particularly on Congress Avenue, that may become fixed for many, many years,” Koch said. “I agree it clashes with the (Scarbrough) building, but my main concern is that it won’t be there forever.”

Commissioner Ben Heimsath commented that the design firm’s successful pocket park project had awarded it a degree of credibility. “The pocket park has been such a wonderful addition to downtown,” he said. “And I have to admire the applicant’s tenacity … clearly there is a vision that’s driving them.”

Heimsath also took the opportunity to honor the input of the late Steven Sadowsky, who died several weeks ago following a battle with cancer. Sadowsky, who served the Historic Preservation Office for over two decades, had previously noted the commission’s lack of tools to address public artwork projects.

“Steve Sadowsky, in a moment very illustrious of his insight, offered some guidance on public art standards for historic districts, referencing cities like Portland as an example,” Heimsath said. “I think this indicates to us that having more articulate direction for such cases would probably be a good idea.”

Rendering and photo courtesy of the applicant via the city of Austin.

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