Vandals horse around Chicago’s latest public arts display

A horse statue designed to portray the Chicago flag is seen on display on the Exelon Plaza near the Chase Tower in Chicago's Loop. Lyndsey McKenna/Medill
A horse statue designed to portray the Chicago flag is seen on display on the Exelon Plaza near the Chase Tower in Chicago’s Loop. Lyndsey McKenna/Medill

By Lyndsey McKenna

Chicago’s newest public arts display is out of the gate, but the equine installation has proven to be fodder for vandals.

The Horses of Honor public art installation will be on display citywide through late November. The installation consists of 90 colorful 5 foot tall, 5-foot long replica horse statues designed to resemble the Chicago Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Unit horses.

According to Abbey Salch, project manger of the Horses of Honor project at Agency360, 60 of the statues are already on display, and another 30 will be unveiled in the weeks to come.

The statues will be auctioned off in December, and all proceeds will benefit the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation. The foundation offers financial assistance to the families of fallen police officers and those severely injured on duty. To date, the foundation has given over $3.8 million dollars in aid.

The Horses of Honor concept is similar to last year’s Great Chicago Fire Hydrants installation. That installation consisted of 101 ornately decorated 5 feet tall fiberglass hydrants, one for each of the city’s 101 firehouses. Sponsored by the 100 Club of Chicago, the project was aimed at raising funds for families of first responders killed in the line of duty.

But the Horses of Honor statues have proven to be popular targets for horseplay.

On Oct. 11, a man climbed one of the statues in the 500 block of North Michigan Avenue, according to police. Darius Moss, 25, was charged with criminal damage to property after he allegedly snapped the winged ornamentation off of the statue while attempting to climb on top. On Oct. 12, a statue outside the Merchandise Mart was found littered with graffiti. And on Oct. 13, a horse near the Wrigley Building fell over after its anchoring was loosened.

The incidents occurred over a busy Chicago Marathon weekend, during which thousands of runners and spectators descended upon the city.

And though the horses may be new to the city, vandalism of public art in Chicago certainly isn’t.

Shortly after Joan Miró’s “Chicago” sculpture was unveiled across from the Daley Center, Crister Nyholm, a part-time art student, splashed it with red paint. He pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal damage to property, was sentenced to 30 months’ felony probation and was ordered to pay $17,000 in cleanup fees, according to published reports.

Just two days after the unveiling of the Cows on Parade installation in the summer of 1999, in which 300 cow statues were displayed citywide, three teenagers were arrested for using a hacksaw to dehorn a cow statue near the historic Chicago Water Tower. Cows on Parade continue in cities across the globe today.

Earlier this year, graffiti was found on “Borders,” an installation by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir. Eighteen of the installation’s 26 life-sized faceless human statues in Grant Park near the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue were tagged with graffiti.

In July, vandals targeted “The Watch,” on display near the Field Museum by Pilsen-based artist Hebru Brantley. In that incident, one of the brightly colored statues depicting children had been knocked over, and another had been beheaded.

For Adelheid Mers, associate professor of arts administration and policy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the horses, like other temporary installations, may be an easy target due to their proximity and impermanent nature.

“People use them as photo backdrops, or view them as entertainment pieces,” she said. “If something looks ad hoc and doesn’t impart the gravitas of something made of more durable and valuable materials, the status is closer to that of decoration than of art, meaning people feel more comfortable to transgress.”

“Oftentimes when people do vandalize, whether the target is art or something else, it’s for the thrill-seeking aspect,” said Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. “Sometimes boredom may be the cause, say when kids think they have nothing better to do, they’re just not using their best judgment.”

But organizers are ultimately willing to accept the risks that accompany the Horses of Honor installation.

“With a public art project, everyone knows there’s a chance things could be vandalized, said Salch. “It’s a risk you take, and it shouldn’t detract from the overall mission, which is to support the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation program and the families that benefit from it.”