Donated sculptures buoy Iowa City public art project

Howard Horan, 60, of Iowa City stands between a pair of hand carved sculptures by Russian artist Valery Kovalev of Russian writers Anton Chekhov and Anna Akhmatova, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
Howard Horan, 60, of Iowa City stands between a pair of hand carved sculptures by Russian artist Valery Kovalev of Russian writers Anton Chekhov and Anna Akhmatova, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Art Small and his family no longer live in Iowa City’s Manville Heights neighborhood, but soon they will, in a way, return home.

Small is donating to the city two sculptures created 15 years ago by a Russian artist out of an oak tree that fell on the Small property off Rocky Shore Drive. One is of Art Small — or a “grumpy old man,” as he puts it — the other his late wife, Mary Jo, and children Martha, Peter and Art III.

The city plans to put them in Black Springs Circle Park near Small’s former home. They’ll be joined by two sculptures of Russian writers made of the same tree and owned by another family.

“I won’t be living that long, and I thought somebody else could enjoy them,” said Small, 76, a former politician who lives in Oaknoll retirement community in Iowa City.

The city has received only a handful of art donations since the public art program began in 1997.

Coming on the heels of cuts made by the City Council to the public art budget as the city struggles through the recession, the timing of the gifts could not be better, said Jan Finlayson, an interior designer who is chairwoman of the Public Art Advisory Committee,

“This is a community that embraces the arts and is very supportive of what the public art committee has done and is understanding of the situation economically,” she said, “but there is still a need” for public art.

Iowa City’s public art program as recently as fiscal 2002 received $100,000 per year in city funds. That was reduced to $50,000 annually for several years, and it’s now down to $14,750.

City Council member Regenia Bailey hopes funding can be increased as the economy improves.

“I think (the public art program) creates an access to the arts that all citizens might not otherwise have,” she said.

The city of Cedar Rapids has had a Visual Arts Commission since 1994. The commission is not included in the city’s budget but has received about $43,000 total in hotel-motel tax money the past four years, said Brad Larson, a community development planner for the city.

More money may be on the way. Council members recently said they want to set aside 1 percent of a public project’s cost for public art. Qualifying projects must cost at least $250,000.

As in Iowa City, donated pieces are rare in Cedar Rapids, with Larson recalling just one in his four years with the city. That would be the “Leaping Frog” bronze sculpture near East Post Road and Cottage Grove Parkway SE.

Larson said the city owns 41 pieces of art that have an estimated value of $5.1 million. The Grant Wood stained-glass window at Veterans Memorial Building accounts for $3 million of that.

An Iowa City count was not available. Some of the more well-known pieces are the Weatherdance Fountain on the Pedestrian Mall and the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk.

There also is a program focusing on the neighborhoods, with the street markers in the Goosetown and Northside neighborhoods being examples. Most of the money in the current budget will go toward one neighborhood project each year, said Marcia Bollinger, the city’s public art coordinator.

The four sculptures recently donated to Iowa City have been outside at private homes but should be in Black Springs Circle Park by the end of October, Bollinger said. That’s an intimate neighborhood park with a couple of dozen old trees.

The two pieces depicting Small’s family are several feet tall. The other two are smaller busts of the Russian writers Anton Chekhov and Anna Akhmatova.

All four were created by Russian artist Valery Kovalev, who would visit Eastern Iowa to see friends and commission pieces. The sculptures of a bear reading a book to three children at the Coralville Public Library also are his work.

After Small’s sculptures were done, family friends Lee Dewey and Dr. Mary Beth Dewey wanted their own. The Russian writers are two of the well-read Lee Dewey’s favorites, said son Howard Horan, 60.

Horan’s parents are deceased, and the longtime family home on Ferson Avenue, a few blocks from the park, will be sold.

“It’s nice to know that these markers for my family will be here a few more years, even though we’re gone,” Horan said.

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