The Muscatine City Council meeting had a sense of meloncholy Thursday evening, as two local artists questioned the project that will construct a 40-foot long watermelon slice on the Muscatine Riverfront.
During the meeting, Jim Elias and Michelle Servadio-Elias questioned details of the project and, specifically, questioned why the Downtown Arts Council was not involved in the planning or creation of the slice. Servadio-Elias commented that there had been no public input.
“We do have some public art on the riverfront, and it is pretty cohesive,” she said. “It is along the historical. Also we do have a public art commission that is advisory in its capacity, and they do have some sets of criteria and guidelines. As a local artist I think it would be wiser if we opened this up and let our local artists or professional artists submit ideas.”
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The issue came up as the council was asked to approve a purchase order for $40,000 to construct the slice. Servadio-Elias also asked why, when the council had been told the slice was a gift, a purchase order was needed. City Administrator Carol Webb explained that the project proponent asked the city enter the contract with the provider. The city did set guidelines to ensure it would not pay for any of the project.
During the May 11 meeting, Mayor Brad Bark, addressing the council as the director of the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GMCCI), announced the project to construct what may be the largest watermelon slice sculpture in the world. The sculpture is meant to honor Muscatine’s long history of growing melons.
Elias, a member of the art advisory commission, said it felt like the project usurped the process the commission had been working on for art displays.
“I spoke with a lot of people over the last few days,” Elias said. "There are a lot of people in the art community that feel the same way — that there hasn’t been a real public vetting of the project. Typically, a public art project comes from the community.”
Both said they weren’t specifically against the project, but they felt the public needed to be more involved. Elias said he felt the project was a nice advertising item.
According to Webb, city code says the commission will evaluate gifts of art for public sites and select the sites. The commission plans to come to the City Council in June with a proposed vetting process for public art. Bark also went to the commission with the project, and it was endorsed unanimously. Elias had made the motion to endorse the project.
Elias said the project had gotten to the point that no one wanted to “derail it.” He said he felt compelled to bring issues to the council, hoping it would not set a precedent.
Servadio-Elias asked about possible festivals to go along with the slice. Webb said it was up to private groups to set up any possible festival for the slice.