Did Buffalo steal “Shark Girl” from Cincinnati?
Officials behind the public art project at Canalside certainly are not saying so. But you might get that impression from some Cincinnatians, who are a bit sore that a city-funded public sculpture by one of their most beloved artists was unceremoniously transferred this month to Buffalo.
“It was going to be in a public venue, and then you guys snatched it,” said Jan Brown Checco, an arts administrator for Cincinnati’s public parks. “It kind of pulled the rug out from under us, because we felt that it might have a little longer stay in Cincinnati.”
The piece was funded with a $6,000 grant through Cincinnati’s Arts Ambassador Fellowship, a program that enables artists to make ambitious or large-scale work they otherwise couldn’t afford to create. After the sculpture’s yearlong stint on the Cincinnati waterfront, the program’s organizers were in the process of moving it to a new public location.
But that’s when the Albright-Knox Art Gallery swooped in, offering a sum of money it declined to reveal, and whisking the sculpture from the Queen City of the West to the Queen City of the Great Lakes.
“It was a perfect situation for a character that is well-known here in town. I think we just didn’t see you guys coming,” Checco said. “I want to cry just because I would have liked to see it stay longer, but I totally am supportive and congratulatory of this thing happening for her because it’s completely deserved.”
The “Shark Girl” character, created by artist Casey Riordan Millard, has been the subject of drawings, paintings and sculptures for many years. She’s the star of her own children’s book. And on Oct. 25, Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center will hold “Shark Girl Day” to celebrate the second anniversary of the installation of a smaller “Shark Girl” sculpture at the center.
Checco said that Millard fulfilled her obligations and owns the sculpture herself, so she was entitled to do whatever she wanted with it. And it’s found a hospitable home in Buffalo, where reaction to the sculpture, both in person and online, has been ecstatic.
Millard, whose work has been roundly embraced by Cincinnatians, said in an interview Thursday morning that she was impressed by the reaction the sculpture is receiving in Buffalo.
“I am really used to making things and putting them out there and having very little reaction. I think most artists get used to that,” Millard said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s been so fun to watch it. I’ve never had anything like this happen.”
Originally, Millard intended the sculpture to face the water so that whoever sat next to her would engage in a kind of calm and contemplative moment. But Cincinnati residents soon altered that plan.
“As soon as we installed her down there, within a day, people turned her around” so that they could have their photos taken with the water in the background, Millard said. “I left her that way, so that’s how she was installed when she came to you guys.”
For Jamie Thompson, an education curator at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and a longtime supporter of Millard’s work, the public’s embrace of the character couldn’t be clearer. But she suggested that the installation of “Shark Girl” on the waterfront drew a somewhat subdued response because Cincinnati is already so familiar with her other work.
“There is definitely a different response coming from Buffalo. People in Cincinnati love her work; it’s just we’ve seen it for years now,” Thompson said, adding that some visitors to the Contemporary Arts Center “threaten me if I ever get rid of ‘Shark Girl.’ ”
Thompson said she’s not surprised that Buffalo is reacting so positively to the sculpture.
“As a curator, I am so excited for Casey to be able to share her work with another city. Her work strikes a chord with people, where they can really feel that they relate to it. There’s something about this little Victorian girl’s body with a shark head, which embodies Casey’s own fears,” Thompson said. “For an artist to be so genuine and really express themselves in the way she has through this character, it makes us all kind of love her and the character,” she said.
While Checco begrudgingly agreed with that notion, she couldn’t help being a little bit wistful about what Cincinnati lost.
“It is bittersweet,” she said. “We applaud our working artists. We’re glad that they’re here. But it’s a little bit like your children: Don’t you want them to go out into the world? Yeah, sure you do.”