‘Busted plug’

Columbia artist in tussle with city over 'Busted Plug' move

cleblanc@thestate.comMarch 7, 2013 

  • By the numbers

    2: Years it took to design and build

    10 feet: Depth of the underground water and support systems

    12: Years since sculpture unveiled

    38 feet: Height of the hydrant

    8,500 pounds: Weight of the hydrant

    675,000 pounds: Weight of the entire structure

    $250,000: Cost to build, install sculpture

    SOURCE: Artist Blue Sky

Columbia City Council is caught between an assertive Blue Sky, who is pushing to move his popular fire hydrant sculpture to the top of Finlay Park, and city staffers’ preference for a safer, more practical site inside the downtown park.

So Columbia is hiring experts and has put a $350,000 price tag on converting the four-story, donated artwork into a water feature for children. City leaders have not decided where the money will come from but are considering using hospitality tax revenue. Patrons pay the 2 percent tax on prepared meals and beverages.

“We’ve got this fire plug that nobody wants,” the artist protested at a Feb. 19 City Council meeting where he pressed to move the nearly four-story metal hydrant from Taylor Street, where it has stood since 2001. “It’s like a hand-me-down from your older brother.

“You’re going to throw it into a spare room and forget about it,” Blue Sky said. “I’m the artist, and I’m telling you where to put it.” He wants it at the busy Laurel and Assembly streets intersection, an elevation that overlooks the 18-acre park in the heart of Columbia.

Blue Sky does not accept explanations from city staffers and Mayor Steve Benjamin that his “Busted Plug” sculpture, now on private property, would require negotiating around underground utility lines and pose a safety hazard if erected at the artist’s preferred location.

Thursday, he called the city’s preferred site near the intersection of Taylor and Gadsden streets, on the other, lower side of the park, a “nowhere land.” No one would see the sculpture, he argues. “In fact, the only people there are the homeless people.”

To accommodate Blue Sky’s concerns, the city is seeking to hire consultants to conduct a technical assessment of alternative sites, to recommend a design in cooperation with the artist and to open a splash pad for children featuring the hydrant sometime this summer.

City Council accepted the sculpture in December from AgFirst bank, which owns it and is selling the Taylor Street property where one of the city’s most recognizable pieces of public art has stood since February 2001.

Blue Sky said Thursday he did not know he is to be involved in selecting the site. “That sounds good,” he said. “Now I don’t have anything to complain about.”

That might appease him – if he gets the spot he wants. But that conciliatory tone is a stark contrast to what he told council last month.

“I spent two years on this,” he said then of the sculpture. “You know what it’s like dealing with you guys? It’s like dealing with inert matter – you don’t feel anything.” He admonished council members that, “You should listen to what I say. I’ve not been wrong yet.”

As the artist stepped away from the podium at the meeting, the city manager retorted, “The violins are playing.” Teresa Wilson’s comment underscored the tension between the city and Blue Sky.

One key feature that Blue Sky and council agree on is that Busted Plug should become interactive, as he intended 12 years ago. “But the bank didn’t want the liability of people playing in the water,” the artist said. He provided The State newspaper with a painting he had made of his original design.

Assistant city manager Allison Baker is leading the city’s efforts to incorporate the sculpture into the park.

He told council Tuesday the budget is $350,000, including architectural and engineering studies and moving the sculpture. But Baker called that figure “conservative.” The bank has offered to provide $20,000 to defray the moving cost.

Though consultants have yet to be hired, tentative plans call for a splash pad similar to the one at Drew Wellness Center, Baker said.

It would be 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, shoot synchronized cylinders of water from underground water lines so that children could run through the pad and be surprised by which plumes would soak them. The underground lines and filtration system would have to be customized for the pad. The soil will have to be tested to be sure it can support the weight of the water feature.

The hydrant and its base weigh 675,000 pounds, Blue Sky said. The underground infrastructure reaches 10 feet deep, making the entire sculpture five stories.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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