COEUR d’ALENE — The Soviet Union cast its reign of Communism across the globe for almost 75 years. Its iconic hammer and sickle could only survive the Coeur d’Alene spotlight for a few days.
On Monday, without fanfare or fight, the sculpture Marker #11 was removed from its perch at Riverstone Park — and replaced with an orange caution cone — by crews from the city of Coeur d’Alene on the orders of Mayor Steve Widmyer. Widmyer decided to have the artwork taken away after a YouTube video posted Nov. 9 on the Facebook page of local activist Casey Whalen showed an image of the piece, which featured the Soviet symbol as part of its commentary against the coal industry.
Marker #11 is a four-walled box that towered over the path around Riverstone Park’s pond. Each side displays a word and symbol from four different languages and their corresponding countries: Below the English word “COAL” sits a giant red X. Below the Chinese word for coal sits the symbol of the Chinese dragon. Below the Korean word for coal sits the peninsula’s yin and yang.
On the fourth wall —the wall that happened to face over the water toward the park for all to see — sits the Russian word for coal and the Soviet hammer and sickle.
The video and subsequent Coeur d’Alene Press story sparked outrage among locals. Whalen decried the art piece as evidence of a United Nations-backed conspiracy to desensitize North Idaho to notions of socialism. Others found the idea of parading the symbol of Communism in the middle of Coeur d’Alene on the taxpayer’s dime as disgraceful. One resident even demanded to know candidates’ political affiliations, called for boycotts of the Riverstone area and a recall of public officials if the piece weren’t taken down.
Others weighed in passionately.
“The sign of Communism, responsible for over 100 million murders, and is diametrically opposed to our Constitution, has no business touching American soil,” Alice Smith wrote. “I’d like to know if there was one penny of taxpayer money that paid for this abomination?”
“I believe that Agenda 2030 is bad but why is tax money being used to fund any of this ‘art?’” Oliver Franklin asked.
Marker #11’s sculptor, John Zylstra of Bellingham, Wash., participates in the city’s public art placement program, ArtCurrents. Unlike commissioning works of art (such as the recent storm drain project), ArtCurrents enables the city to lease pieces of art for use in downtown Coeur d’Alene and the Riverstone area.
The city, through the Arts Commission, provides a $1,000 stipend to artists who agree to have their art temporarily on loan one year at a time. Each year the art display is extended, artists receive a $600 stipend.
All ArtCurrents pieces are for sale; if sold, the city receives a 25 percent commission. Up until Monday morning, Marker #11 was price-tagged for $25,000.
The public art account receives 1.33 percent of capital improvement projects each year, per city code. This funnels between $4,000 and $9,000 per year for the fund. The fund is also budgeted to receive $104,000 from ignite cda for public art fund.
Additional costs for installing and maintaining Marker #11 came from the city’s Public Art Fund maintenance account, a fund that rolls over from year to year and had $67,200 in its 2016 budget, the year Marker #11 was originally installed.
Zylstra could not be reached for comment Monday. Earlier this year, the city chose to renew Zylstra’s piece as part of a “Call To Artists” for its ArtCurrents program. Marker #11 was chosen to be renewed by the seven-voting-member selection committee within the Arts Commission, appointed from a pool of local artists and people within the local art industry.
ArtCurrents began in 2011 as a city-wide showcase that keeps art on display throughout Coeur d’Alene for one year at a time, with options to extend the artists’ display for longer if desired. The selections are chosen based on artistic quality, context, compatibility with a site, materials’ suitability and safety, the possible contribution to the city’s public art collection, public safety, environmental impact, media, diversity, feasibility, and duplication.
“The piece of art was not approprate for public property and needed to be removed immediately,” Widmyer told The Press. “There will be discussions moving foward on guidelines on art placement.”
That discussion will come sooner than later. The Arts Commission’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting comes Nov. 26, when chair Jennifer Drake said Marker #11 will be at the very top of the agenda.
On the city of Coeur d’Alene Arts Commission website, a frequently asked question reads: “I don’t like some public art. What can I do?”
The answer provided by the city contrasts with Widmyer’s urge to remove Marker #11.
“Nationwide, the best public art often sparks controversy,” the answer reads. “Many artworks that are initially met with mixed public reaction eventually become accepted as part of the cultural fabric of the community. Historically, it’s been discovered that for every resident who dislikes a piece of art, there is another who is favorably disposed to it. Public art is about community engagement and dialogue.”
Not all dialogue was as neutral as the city’s response.
“Ms. Drake should be fined for the trash her group has left on our street,” Rick Jones declared in a comment to The Press.
“This has me so ticked off, I can’t even think how to start,” Lillian Knapp wrote. “What in the world is happening to our town?”
One viewer of the Whalen video posted in its comment section that anyone affiliated with Marker #11 should be shot on sight.