Maine Artists Worry About The Future Of Public Installations As Pandemic Threatens Funding

Apr 27, 2020

The artist duo of Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen have worked on public art together for the last 15 years. Most recently, they won a million-dollar public art commission for the new Washington Convention Center in Seattle.

Kavanaugh told Maine Public Radio about the realities of collaborating during a pandemic while maintaining appropriate social distancing. But while they are working, Kavanaugh worries that COVID-19 may be an existential threat to artists who focus on public works.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

“We’re trying to put everything we have into it, because it’s the first big commission that we’ve gotten. And it could be the last. My name is Wade Kavanaugh, I’m an artist and I live in Bethel.

Wade Kavanaugh helps one of his children work on an art project.
Credit Wade Kavanaugh

“So we wanted to make this artwork that kind of imbued this sense of change. So it’s going to be these series of, like, giant old-growth trees that are kind of twisting down the underside of this cantilevered platform. And we’re really excited about what we’ve got planned, but we also really want the opportunity to execute the project. They’re worried about labor and they’re worried about materials not being available. So we’re just seeing really inflated prices already kind of coming at us.

“Steve and I both kind of feel like the golden age of public art is probably coming to a close. I hope the economy gets through this, and there continues to be, you know, wide-ranging support for the arts. But I feel like the arts are typically one of the things that gets trimmed first.

“So much of the, you know, conceptually based artwork now has moved into social practice. And when you’re not allowed to be social, it really changes the dimension of what artists are able to do. It’s like Steve and I’s practice is founded on this idea of collaboration. Because we’re together and because we’re working through an idea, our work goes to this completely other place. And that’s what we’ve kind of cherished over the last 15 years of working together.

“And so now it’s just much harder. We’re basically just on the phone with each other and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go try this,’ and sending pictures and he is modeling stuff and sending that back and he’s sending dimensions. It challenges the magic that we found in our art practice.

An installation-in-progress in Wade Kavanaugh's art studio.
Credit Wade Kavanaugh

“I feel actually really lucky that I have this deadline, because there’s clarity in what I have to do every day. If I were just waking up and facing another day, without an agenda, I would feel somewhat lost I think. It’s been pretty amazing to see how many people have moved their practice into, you know, virtual studio visits, or they’re just — it’s just incredible how much people are sharing right now.

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