I fell down the rabbit hole in 1986 when I moved to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin. Naive but curious, in less than a year I went from wearing pink polo shirts and green capris to wearing tie dyed t-shirts and long gauzy skirts. Much to the chagrin of my family and friends back home, this strange alternative universe that stretched me and shrank me and brought me back to size was my idea of utopia.
If I had to name just one clothed, talking, white rabbit that enticed me down that hole, I would say it was George Segal’s Gay Liberation (1984). I first saw the piece in Orton Park when I was riding my bike around Lake Monona: two women, two men, clearly couples, sitting comfortably on a park bench talking with each other.
Today, the subject matter seems rather innocuous, but at age 18, having narrowly escaped the cult of normalcy in the St. Louis suburb where I was raised, seeing Gay Liberation casually placed in a community park on the near east side of Madison made me feel like I had just taken a seat at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
Where I was from, being gay often meant being fired from one’s job, threatened on the streets, and rejected by one’s peers and family. Granted, even in progressive Madison, there were some people who had strong adverse reactions to Gay Liberation being placed in Orton Park. However, between the political process, community will, the New Harvest Foundation (the newly-organized LGBTQ organization that raised the funds for the project), and a strong arts community, Gay Liberation was ultimately welcomed (See “Before Christopher Street” by Dick Wagner in the May/June 2009 issue of Our Lives.).
Segal’s sculpture, like a bottle labeled “Drink Me,” compelled and challenged me. I knew that in 1982 Wisconsin was the first state to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, in a sense mandating tolerance through legislation. But seeing Gay Liberation in a neighborhood park confirmed to me that Madison’s cultural values went beyond tolerating difference to valorizing it and encouraging the cultural expression of those values. It affirmed what I believe, that societies that embrace diversity will thrive and be more equipped to adapt and prepare for the future than those who cling to sameness.
In 1991, Gay Liberation left Madison and moved to its permanent home at Christopher Park in New York City. I am still proud to live in the city that offered sanctuary to one of Segal’s most important public art works until the rest of the world was ready for it. The goal of valorizing difference guides me every day in my work. I am obsessed with inclusion and collectivity. Difference is a basic reality of human existence. We are all different. Mining the riches of our differences is critical to any community’s struggle to grow and evolve.
Madison could do a better job of being inclusive, but it often demonstrates that is has collectively arrived at a distinct sense of meaning and purpose. Our commitment to well-being is not found everywhere. There is a connectedness here in which residents create a shared ideal for everything from living wages to water quality. People expect the government to be responsive to their vision. In both my job and my citizenship, I strive everyday to be worthy of that responsibility.
When he first took office, Mayor Cieslewicz increased the City arts budget. Even when the economy tumbled, he and the City Council preserved funding for the arts. The City purchases public art for every major new capital project, issues grants to community groups (such as funding GSAFE’s Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals exhibition), has grown a temporary public art program, and has recently invested in the creation of a cultural arts plan that will create a road map for the future of arts and cultural development.
I am thrilled that culture plays a starring role in Madison’s democracy. Art and artists have infused the landscape here, from Concerts on the Square to buskers on the street, from statewide celebrations such as the Wisconsin Book Festival and Wisconsin Film Festival to local coffee house poetry slams, and from Overture to the Bartell. We are blessed to have so many individual artists, a world-class performing arts center, and a thriving university arts community (currently celebrating the “Year of the Arts”). Through our support and participation, we are all doing our part to create a collective, non-homogenous culture.
Looking back, it is no coincidence that this important lesson was first conveyed to me via a public art piece. One of the important roles of art in society is to challenge the status quo and create openings for possibilities previously unimagined. It was soon after seeing Gay Liberation that I started dreaming of a role in which I could help make sure that art happens here. I wanted to facilitate creative expression, help connect artists with opportunities, and that ensure public art is a critical part of how we build our city.
Fortunately for me, I like jumping hoops and playing with red tape. Neither public service nor public art is for the faint of heart. Like Alice when she was overwhelmed, I would be swimming in a river of my own tears if not for the wise guides that help me stay my own size, and neither shrink too small nor grow too tall.
Ultimately, I am honored to serve our community and greatly enjoy exploring and expanding our curious happenings. Art, design, and culture add to a rich and complex tapestry that further celebrates our diversity. Hopefully, each will serve as a white rabbit for other Alices whose experiences of Wonderland will make Madison a better place to work, live, and play.