Two decades ago, Chicago got caught up in cow fever — not bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but a benign form of art-cow madness.
Craft-augmented cow statues in that summer of 1999 started up across the downtown area: a cow festooned in flowers, a cow painted in red and yellow zebra stripes, a cow tiled over like a shower stall.One particularly clever cow, outside of Columbia College, had “HOW” stenciled on one side, “NOW” on the other. The underlying color was, of course, brown.
“Cows on Parade,” conceived as a canvas for local artists, “went crazy,” recalled Peter Hanig, the Michigan Avenue shoe-store owner whose family vacation in Switzerland the year before inspired the cow invasion. “I took people on tours. It was a crazy summer.”
“Serious-faced, business-suited executives would walk by these bovines and then crack a broad smile,” said the hardbound book produced to mark the outdoor exhibition. “Children tried to milk the udders. Tourists photographed cows en masse.”
“What may be the most popular use of fiberglass since the invention of the hot tub,” one Tribune reporter wrote of the Department of Cultural Affairs-sponsored project.
By midsummer, 334 of them, most sponsored by businesses, had been loosed on city sidewalks and plazas, these cast fiberglass forms celebrating — not necessarily in this order — artmaking, civic celebration, product-peddling and everybody’s favorite docile farm animal, giver of milk, maker of moos, emitter of methane.
By 2007, so many copycat projects had been launched around the country that it took a 200-page book, “American ArtParades,” to chronicle all of them. Some of the names and places: Pandamania in Washington, D.C.; Wild Salmon on Parade in Anchorage; Lighthouse LobStars on New Hampshire’s seacoast; the Big Pig Gig in Cincinnati; Overalls All Over in Cedar Rapids; Gallopalooza in Louisville; Corn-on-the-Curb in downstate Bloomington.
There are more. Many more. And all, the book says, were inspired by Chicago’s cows, which were in turn inspired by a cow art parade Hanig had seen in Zurich and then brought to then Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg.
A round-number anniversary of such a civic moment cannot be allowed to pass without commemoration, of course. The Magnificent Mile Association, the group of merchants lining North Michigan Avenue whose predecessor organization was the original “Cows on Parade” financial backer, is marking Year 20 by holding a reunion for those cows it can rustle up.
Called “Cows Come Home,” the month-long installation will put perhaps 20 of the original cows on display in the little park by the Water Tower. (That’s called Jane Byrne Park, you might not have known, and Hanig said his latest count was 18, but cows might still come in.)
“I’m loaning one of my cows. My brother is loaning one of his,” Hanig said. “They’re in various degrees of perfection. These were not bronze sculptures.”
On Monday the group will officially reveal them, not in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle again but merely to commemorate. Those on display will include the “Holy Cow” cow from Harry Caray’s Restaurant, “W. la vacca” by artist Virginio Ferrari and the “Lady Bug” cow.
“Nostalgia is a significant part of it,” said Hanig. “Over the years, people would say, ‘When are you going to bring it back?’”
The city has hosted a number of similar projects since — painted police horses, lighthouses — but none has captured the imagination in quite the same way. The cultural affairs department itself only tried one other time, with a painted furniture project two years after the cows called “Suite Home Chicago.”
“It was the same,” said Nathan Mason, who was hired by the culture department to manage the cows project and now is head of public art in the city. “It was virtually identical in the footprint, in sponsorship, in cost and in execution. And it was nowhere near as popular.”
That’s because cows are “relatable,” he thinks, in ways that furniture is not. And also the cows simply came first.
Also, thought then-mayor Richard M. Daley, the cows made art approachable. “‘Cows on Parade’ proves that art doesn’t always have to be serious,” he said in the city’s official news release for the event. “Art can be light-hearted, witty and clever.”
But how much of it was even art?
Then-Tribune art critic Alan Artner was not impressed, in that summer of ’99. “The majority had a homogenized jollity that ultimately was about buying, supporting and approving a top-o’-the-world, ain’t-we-grand vision created by the city’s bureau of tourism,” he wrote. “That cheerleading is an effort of the sort once viewed with suspicion by artists.”
Still, he didn’t deny that it pleased people, calling it contemporary art as comfort food where “entertainment came before everything else.”
Mason doesn’t sound entirely enamored of the project either, although it had its good points. He pointed out that some very talented artists took part in the cow-form adornment. One of them, Edra Soto, was a School of the Art Institute student then, and this summer has a sculpture being featured in Millennium Park.
The project gave young artists paid opportunities; typically, a business would pay $3,500 to sponsor a cow, and $1,000 of that fee would go to an artist selected from a city-compiled pool.
And the auction of the cows after the project ended that October was a stunning success.
“Sotheby’s, based on reasonable expectations, expected that the live and the online auction would net a few hundred thousand dollars for charity,” Mason said. “Instead the auction netted about three and a half million dollars.”
As much as the project’s popularity on the streets, that dollar figure was what really made it resonate around the country, he said.
As for the cows as art, “Some of it was good. Some of it was cliche,” he said. “It’s one of those things where as an artist myself I would not have done one. But there were a lot of good artists who did. And as a project manager it was a good project.
“But in the end, when you get repetitive forms, or you do them dozens of times, you start to get cliche. I personally don’t want to see another one. I’ve had my fill.”
But to Hanig, whose current Hanig’s Footwear stores are at 875 N. Michigan and in Wilmette, the point wasn’t so much the art as the interaction.
In Switzerland, he said, “I thought the art was interesting. The fact that people were stopping and looking and sort of communicating with each other was what struck me the most. They were gathered. They weren’t just walking past.”
Hanig had read Jane Jacobs, the great writer who argued for the need for “social capital” in urban spaces. “It made a big impression on me — about how people relate to each other on the sidewalk,” he said. “And I saw something happening with these objects. It was changing the dynamic of people of the street, the aloneness.”
He thought that same thing might happen if the artsy cows came here. “And it did,” Hanig said. “It worked. If we could figure out how to do this more often the city would be a better place.”
“Cows Come Home” is on display July 1-31 in Jane Byrne Park, 180 E. Pearson St.;