A Portland sculpture has (once again) raised a storm over public art.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
What if you spent a hundred thousand dollars on a work of art and later decided you hated it? Now what if you spent a hundred thousand of scarce taxpayer dollars on a work of art and everyone hated it? That seems to be the case with Tracing the Fore, a controversial public art project in downtown Portland.
Perhaps beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder, but few people seem to find Tracing the Fore, a sculptural wave of grass and metal along Fore Street in Boothby Square, beautiful. Matthew Cardente, whose Old Port real estate office overlooks the offending artwork, described the site-specific work of landscape art to the Portland Press Herald as “a bunch of dangerous razors protruding from a weed patch.”
“It’s an embarrassment,” says Cardente, who collected 125 signatures on a letter asking the city to remove the installation. The Press Herald agreed, declaring in an August 5 editorial, “ ‘Tracing the Fore’ is an art installation that doesn’t work and just makes people angry.” And yet the Portland Public Art Committee, which oversees public art installations in the Forest City, reported in May that “Overall, it is looking good.”
“It did look good,” insists Jack Soley, the Portland real estate executive who chairs the all-volunteer Portland Public Art Committee, “for about three or four days.”
The debate over public art — What is its actual value to a community? Who gets to decide what’s good or not? Should taxpayers be expected to foot the bill? — is nothing new in Maine. While we like to boast about our rich artistic heritage and promote our museums, galleries, and studios as tourist attractions, Mainers have been slow to put our tax money where our mouths are. In 1979 the legislature passed the Percent for Art law, reserving 1 percent (or, in the case of schools, fifty thousand dollars, whichever is less) of the construction costs of state-funded buildings for artistic features such as sculptures, murals, and stained-glass windows. Since then, the state has spent only about $8 million commissioning some four thousand works of art for four hundred public buildings, mostly in schools.
Maine Arts Commission Executive Director Donna McNeil says she is routinely called upon to defend the expenditure of any public money on art, as she was during the last legislative session by Representative Patrick Flood (R-Winthrop), a member of the appropriations committee. “He misunderstood the law,” says McNeil. “He thought Percent for Art was extra money going to art. The citizens of a place can opt in or out of participating in Percent for Art.”
Flood says in an e-mail response that while the legislature could have attempted to simply delete the 1 percent from all appropriated projects, “ultimately it is probably reasonable to expect that significant new projects have the option of carrying some small artistic value forward for long-term appreciation.”
In 2003, however, faced with revenue shortfalls, the Legislative Council balked at spending $75,000 on a painting by Robert Indiana, one of Maine’s most distinguished artists, with Percent for Art money. That acquisition was triggered by the renovations of the State House and Capitol Complex.
“It’s a question of priorities, as it is with any other item,” said State Senator Kenneth Gagnon (D-Waterville) at the time. “I support the [Percent for Art] program, and the idea of tabling it or deferring it is preferable to rejecting it altogether.”
Indiana’s First State, a painting celebrating Maine’s distinction as the first state in the nation to see the sunrise, now hangs outside the governor’s office — but not because the state paid for it. In 2007, Robert Indiana gave the painting to the state.
Tracing the Fore, however, has hardly been free for Portlanders.
In 2007, the Portland Public Art Committee — which has an annual fifty thousand dollars budget to maintain existing public art works and commission new ones, independent of the state’s Percent for Art program — hired noted Boston landscape architect and Harvard professor Shauna Gillies-Smith to create a sculptural wave in the location where the Portland waterfront once ended, before Commercial Street was created through landfill. The original estimate was $68,000, but the cost has risen to a hundred thousand dollars owing to increases in the price of the stainless steel that forms the artwork’s retainers and expensive landscaping efforts.
“I have never seen the piece that was intended,” admits Soley. “The piece that we commissioned has never been realized. I am extremely frustrated that the process with the artist has not been a fluid one. We didn’t get the product we paid for.” (Efforts to reach Gillies-Smith for this story were unsuccessful.)
Soley thought the problem may have been less the sculpture and more the blue sheep’s fescue with which Tracing the Fore was planted. The exotic grass never grew in properly, he argues, so the committee considered replanting the installation with a native grass that might have created the intended wave effect.
In August, however, the art committee met with Portland corporation counsel and then with Shauna Gillies-Smith to consider its options. In September the committee discussed simply “de-accessioning” Tracing the Fore, removing it from the Old Port at a potential cost of another $15,000. Moving the sculpture also remains an option. A vote on the decision was scheduled for October 20.
Realtor Matthew Cardente applauds the push to remove the Old Port eyesore. “With so many people opposed,” says Cardente, “we’d really just like to see it removed. I don’t think I’d pay more money for something that doesn’t work.”
Even when it comes at no cost to the taxpayer, public art can stir controversy. In 2002, the Portland Public Art Committee, backed by the Portland City Council, refused to accept the gift of a statue memorializing settler George Cleeve based on an unsubstantiated suggestion that he may have been a slave owner. A local businessman later accepted the gift and installed the statue on private property on the East End.
And in 2006, the committee voted 6-1 to reject a bronze statue that Portland Sea Dogs minor league baseball team owner Daniel Burke wanted to have erected outside Hadlock Field, again at no cost to the city. The committee argued that the merchandising aspect of the statute, a family group on its way to a ballgame — Sea Dogs tickets in hand — created by sports sculptor Rhoda Sherbell, was, in Jack Soley’s words, “disallowed explicitly in our guidelines for public art.” In addition, Soley was quoted as observing that Portland already had too many “white folks on pedestals.” The public debate then became focused on the political correctness of the family portrayed (Too white? Too traditional? Too corny?), but Soley says his concern was about “diversity of work, not of ethnicity. It had nothing to do with ethnicity.”
The Portland City Council ended up overruling the committee and voted unanimously to accept Daniel Burke’s gift, which now stands in front of the stadium a few feet away from the fiberglass statue of Slugger the Sea Dog, the team’s cartoon mascot.
The arts tend to flourish in good economic times, but public art advocates argue that it’s important to invest in art during down times as well. Two ongoing projects — neither paid for with tax dollars and on either end of the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Portland — showcase the difficulty of raising funds to make their communities more desirable.
On the South Portland side, the Maine Center for Creativity has raised $655,000 of the $1.2 million it needs to paint abstract designs by London-based Venezuelan artist Jaime Gili, winner of an international competition, on sixteen oil storage tanks. So far, only two of the oil tanks have been painted.
“It’s always difficult to fund-raise for the arts,” says Maine Center for Creativity founding director Jean Maginnis, “but because we have a vision of putting Maine on the map for creativity and innovation, we have continued to raise money during the recession.”
On the Portland side, friends of the late waterfront businessman P.D. Merrill are trying to raise between six hundred thousand dollars and $1 million to commission a landmark work of art for the planned Merrill Marine Gateway. Portland artist Aaron T. Stephan has been selected to create Boom, a sixty-three-foot starburst of construction cranes, but so far the group has only been able to raise $150,000, with another $150,000 in pledges of in-kind contributions.
Proponents of public art insist these projects are excellent investments in both the short and long term. “Today all the talk is about jobs,” says Maine Arts Commission Director Donna McNeil. “Understand that each time a piece of public art is commissioned it provides a real job. It employs artists in the work they are trained to do.”
“It’s very important to note,” adds Jean Maginnis of the Maine Center for Creativity, “that 7,300 people in Maine work in the arts and culture sector of our economy. That’s more that the 6,900 who work in the woods product industry and more than the 6,000 fishermen.”
But the primary argument for the creation of public art is that it adds to the quality of public life and expresses a community’s values.
“Public art nourishes you without intention,” says Jack Soley. “It’s part of the fabric of a community.”
Nowhere perhaps is this more true than in Skowhegan, where stands one of Maine’s best-known and most visible public sculptures. In 1969 Bernard Langlais created a sixty-two-foot wooden Indian for his wife’s hometown. For several years, the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, which owns the Langlais Indian, has been trying to raise money to repair and restore the deteriorating sculpture.
Cory King, executive director of the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, reports that his organization has so far raised just $26,000 of the $65,000 needed to restore the Skowhegan Indian, which cost only twenty thousand when new.
“It’s a battle, talking to people about public art,” admits King. “They’ll say forty thousand would go better for the school budget or another cop. But it’s easier with the Indian because it’s a symbol of the town. Those that don’t get it will never get it. Those that do just have to forge ahead.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem