After three decades of “percent for the arts” programs, we the wandering public get no impact from the obligatory plopping of a sturdy large symbolic structure in front of each and all public buildings. It’s a nice welfare program for artists, but as with all predictable gifts, the grateful interaction (expressed best by making worthwhile work) between artist and public-as-represented-by-arts-committee slowly evaporates.

One of the most interesting academic offices in Portland is the newish Food Innovation Center, part of Oregon State University, on Front Avenue just North of the Broadway Bridge (1207 NW Naito Parkway). If you seek corporate glory with your kitchen creations, this might be the place to enroll and not the lowbrow Western Culinary.

Outside abutting the parking lot is a large structure of a stainless steel cone, about fourteen feet across at the top and eighteen inches at the bottom. It’s thick but doesn’t make an interesting bell sound. It’s mounted on four columnar boulders, which somehow muffles the tone.

In the ground below the cone, catching rainwater is a sewer grate.

As I approached the cone early on a Sunday morning, I noticed someone had tossed a stripped fir branch into the cone.

Stepping back, the artwork is called Valley and was made by Minneapolis sculptor Janet Lofquist, and of course selected by a jury after a nationwide RFP. There is a second piece inside the FIC, Preserved, inside on a lobby wall. Being Sunday, I didn’t see that part.

According to FIC, “Together these works represent where the Food Innovation Center is located – the Willamette Valley surrounded by the mountains, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Adams – and what we do at the Food Innovation Center – working to create value-added, preserved consumer foods from the agricultural crops produced from around the state.”

Excuses understood, the work is entirely uninteresting, aside from the unstated fact OSU was obligated by percent-for-the-arts to make an arts purchase based on construction costs. Did the jury include the FIC construction project manager, the parking lot sweeper, the insurance underwriter? Clearly maintenance, subject blandness and longevity were primary considerations.

In an RFP system, artists can’t truly be held responsible for junk such as this – market forces bring saleable work forward. It’s the arts administrator advising the project who is wholly responsible in this instance for undermining both craft and beauty.

And sadly for FIC they’re stuck with it. Soon, probably now, the artwork has already been deleted from the engaged mind of staff and regular visitors. It’s only occasionally visitors and local wanders who are struck by the inappropriateness and basic junkiness of the work. We it startles, and first impressions are important. And the artwork will last forever. Without a dedicated and probably secret plan to remove the piece with a midnight bulldozer, considering the elements of heavy stone & stainless steel, the artwork will stay, in a riverside parking lot, for ten thousand years.

Photos and an installation summary of Janet Lofquist’s artwork.

Oh, the stick? I thought to remove it, set it aside. I reached for it and was surprised and even more disappointed to discover it is cast metal and attached quite firmly in the Valley.

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