Chicago Artists Add a Stroke of Genius to Miniature Golf

UPDATED 08/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

Let's see...imitates golf. Or rather, golf imitates art. Or is it that golf imitates life?

Never mind. At Par Excellence! you don't have to know much about art if you know what you like—and if what you like happens to be miniature golf. The exhibit, which was designed by 22 Chicago-area sculptors and painters, is a fully puttable paean to America's favorite roadside attraction. And it may soon be coming to a gallery near you.

The course, a bizarre array of 18 challenging holes with names like "Proper Burial" and "Duffers of the Apocalypse," caused the leisure-sport sensation of the summer when it opened last month at the Art Institute of Chicago's Gallery 2. During the exhibit's five-week run, gallery attendance swelled from 50 visitors a week to 1,500.

Athletes and aesthetes came from as far away as Racine, Wis., five hours north of Chicago, and filled the guest books with rave reviews. ("Artful yet sadistic," noted one patron approvingly.) The show's creators have been swamped with requests to take the exhibit on tour, build a permanent Chicago course and design an indoor miniature-golf game for commercial use—all of which they plan to do within a year.

Par Excellence! is the brainchild of Michael O'Brien, a 36-year-old artist and miniature-golf aficionado who for years has managed to play at least a dozen rounds of his favorite sport every summer. O'Brien was working as visual arts curator for the Illinois Arts Council in 1984, when the idea for the exhibit hit him like a mashie-niblick. Last year, realizing it was time to putt up or shut up, he joined forces with six other artists and began designing the course. Each participant, including O'Brien, drew up plans for one hole, then the group held a contest to find designers for the remaining holes.

It wasn't exactly a plum assignment. Not only did the artists work for free in the searing summer heat, but some spent up to $1,000 on materials. (When the exhibit closed on Aug. 20, they split the roughly $15,000 collected in $2-ahead greens fees to help defray costs.)

The artists also had to watch their creations get walked on, swung at and broken—and were even required to provide spare parts in case a hole became unplayable. "Usually artists are so picky, any nicks or scrapes are cause for uproar," says O'Brien. But in this case, finickiness was overcome by a passion for the game. "Many artists look at miniature golf as sort of folk art," he says.

Since every hole had to be playable, self-expression yielded to practical concerns on occasion. O'Brien still mourns the absence of a hole that was to be built atop a water bed. He vetoed that one, he says, because "people miss a shot in front of their girlfriend or lose a $5 bet and they take it out on the course."

In the end, though, golf served art. "A lot of people who came here hadn't gone to an art gallery before," says O'Brien. "I think it changed their attitude about artists."

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