Public art theft is 'lesson learned'
CHAMPAIGN — Of the 10 sculptures the Public Art League hopes to install soon in Champaign and Urbana, one likely will go in a secure public indoor space.
That's because the Art League, a group of private citizens who formed just two years ago, learned a lesson when someone ripped apart and sold as scrap one of the sculptures it had placed in downtown Champaign last year.
"It's unfortunate, but when you put something in a public place you have to deal with things like that," said David Wilcoxen, president of the league. "It's a lesson learned. If we pick one that's fragile, it will be put indoors, in a more secure public space."
Thomas McNeal, 57, of Champaign faces a Class 3 felony charge of theft in connection with the incident. On May 16 he appeared in court and waived his right to a preliminary hearing, pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial. He was released on his own recognizance. His next court appearance is set for July 3.
McNeal allegedly ripped apart Eureka artist Bob Emser's "Sky Catcher III" that had been installed near First and Chester streets, and then took the aluminum and stainless steel parts to Marco Recycling in Champaign for cash.
After the league discovered the "Sky Catcher III" was missing, treasurer Eric Robeson began searching area scrap yards.
"I was just quite shocked — there it was," he said. "I think the folks at Marko recognized it as something that wasn't a normal thing to bring in. We called the police and the police took it into evidence and the case is now pending."
Robeson and Wilcoxen hope that Emser, once the case is closed and the evidence is released, can reassemble the sculpture. Its asking price is $18,000. The sponsor of the lease for "Sky Catcher III" was the Robeson Family Benefit Fund.
The Public Art League has installed 19 sculptures in Champaign and Urbana over the past two years. This is the first time a sculpture was vandalized and then stolen. Extreme weather has harmed some of the sculptures, but those were repaired.
"It's really too bad," Robeson said. "We were just sick about it, of course. Hopefully we'll be able to get it back and have it put back together again."
For now, the League looks forward to an unveiling, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. June 26 at the Big Grove Tavern, 1 E. Main St., C, of the next 10 sculptures it hopes to have installed in Champaign and Urbana.
The public is welcome to attend the free event.
The league will show slides of the 10 sculptures, created by artists nationwide, and then try to find sponsors willing to pay the $2,000 lease for each one. "We can't do anything without money," Wilcoxen said.
Each sponsored piece will remain in town for two years and then be returned to the artist unless someone — a business or individual — purchases the sculpture either to leave in place or move to another site.
The Community Foundation of East Central Illinois recently gave the Public Art League a $6,000 grant to permanently site a sculpture in downtown Champaign. It will be one from the 18 now installed or from the new ones to be shown next week.
The jury panel that selected the nine sculptures suitable for outdoor installation and one for an indoor space was made up of Robin Hall, Lawrence Hamlin, Carolyn Baxley, Nan Goggin and Pat Samman. The panel was led by Alan Mette, a league board member and the executive associate director of the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois.