I wish I'd been able to attend the conference, but I couldn't. I can still comment, unfortunately...
The "place making" concept sounds a lot like the Richard Florida schtick about how a city needs "al fresco" dining and bike paths to prosper in the new economy. Isn't it the other way around? A city with economic opportunities and good-paying jobs leads to a population with free time and money to spend which leads to cool hangouts and the freedom for moneyed hobbies like leisurely bicycle trips, right?
I agree with you here, to an extent. Once the customers are available, any healthy city will have more than enough businesses spring up to serve them, or attempt to. Look at Trek's B-cycle program.
All the city (any city) has to do at that point is get out of the way, or be reasonably accommodating.
Still, sometimes getting ahead of the curve works. If we hadn't built the city bike paths, would B-cycle have wanted to locate here?
I'm sure Paul Soglin considers himself one of the zealous nuts, as defined by Fred Kent. Maybe he is. But are there any others? ... Doesn't it seem like our zealous nuts are more often engaged in blocking things than building things? Is that too cynical?
What you're seeing is not blocking, but different views of a desirable end result. Some people want to build a mini-Chicago Loop, others envision a more decentralized city (though not sprawl). The give and take is frustrating but healthier than a city run on my-way-or-the-highway rules that inevitably favor wealthy developers and corporations over neighborhoods. With hard work, you get the best of both worlds. There's a reason the Jenifer St. Market got on the "favorite places" list and Target on the unfavorites.
I was interested in the apparent failure of urban "art" spaces like the corny Philosopher's Grove at the top of State Street. In my observation, these things have failed far more often than they succeeded in Madison. Maybe the endless selection process weeds out anything but the blandest and most pointless. Chicago's big chrome bean is a wonder to behold and the Picasso Baboon (shown here wearing his Bears hat: http://0.tqn.com/d/gochicago/1/0/P/0/-/-/picasso.jpg
) is dead-on and much-loved. I know we're not Chicago, but can anybody point to public art projects in Madison that are halfway successful? Nobody even notices the broken red granite pillars in the GEF courtyard on King Street, but when they were put up they were supposed to be public art. We have a very expensive public mural hidden along the John Nolen underpass under the convention center. Everybody hates the pile of white bird poop in front of the stadium. Can somebody list a successful piece of recent public art or art space I'm missing here?
I'd suggest de-prioritizing this overblown kind of expenditure until we get a handle on what works better. In terms of community support, the artists who get paid (and sometimes paid well) for these projects are often not even local, and in any event the money could be spread out to better effect.
Our recent citywide Gallery Night was a far more effective way to support local arts, in contrast: lots of viewers, lots of small sales, lots of exposure for both new and experienced artists.
The real zealous nuts (I don't like the phrase) who have made Madison neighborhoods come alive don't seem to be on the radar at all. Becky Steinhoff, who runs (and pretty much created) the Atwood neighborhood center on Waubesa Street has done more for that neighborhood, and the people in it, than all the public art in the world. And that's what I call "place-making."
So my takeaway is this: it's living institutions like neighborhood centers, not fatuous feelgood installations, that make a real and ongoing difference. It's hard to say this as one who supports the arts (and it's not an either-or matter) but if we go by results, those are the ones that last and the ones we most need to nourish.
And, as an aside, it's great to have someone finally speak the unutterable and say the emperor has no clothes:
While singing the praises of State Street, Kent offered many suggestions for improvement. He returned often to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which he views as a "dead building" with too many windows that fails to "energize the street."
So true. And way too late. Imagining how to fix this is way out of my league, and I love the MMoCA.