New strategy afoot to remove controversial sculpture

June 19, 1995|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

For 18 years it has embellished the U.S. District Courthouse in Baltimore -- a $98,000, red, blue, green and yellow welded-aluminum thorn in the side of the judges who pass by it every day.

"Ridiculous," says one of the George Sugarman sculpture. "A monstrosity," mutters another. Unattractive, yes. But more important, it lacks dignity -- that's the consensus.

Yet for all their power and influence, Maryland's federal judges were never able to persuade anybody to consider removing the darned thing.

Then came Oklahoma City.

In the aftermath of the April 19 bombing, U.S. Marshal Scott A. Sewell has spotlighted the sculpture as a security threat and asked that it be removed.

The consequences could be devastating if someone planted an explosive in or near the sculpture, he wrote in a May 17 letter to the General Services Administration. "The steel pieces would become shrapnel similar to that of a hand grenade, but on a much larger scale!"

The judges are delighted at Marshal Sewell's concern for their security. At the prospect that the sculpture might be removed, Senior U.S. Judge Edward S. Northrop's eyes sparkle. "I wouldn't miss it," he said.

The future of the sculpture, called "Baltimore Federal," will be discussed at a summit conference on the courthouse June 26 and 27. Officials from GSA, the courts and the National Endowment for the Arts are expected to attend.

If the others agree with Marshal Sewell's recommendation to move or remove the sculpture, it could trigger a repeat of a mid-1970s controversy over "Baltimore Federal."

In the showdown 20 years ago the judges scoffed at the sculpture design and tried to dump it. They lost after artists from across the country rallied to its defense.

The debate attracted national attention and made Mr. Sugarman, a New York City artist now in his 80s, something of a local hero.

Still scarred from the earlier sculpture war, the judges are being very, very careful in what they say about old "Baltimore Federal" these days. But you can see their hopes rising.

Oklahoma City has given new legitimacy to all kinds of potential hazards. But the request from Baltimore is one of a kind, GSA officials say.

Removing federally funded artwork is a lengthy process and success is a long shot. GSA isn't ruling it out, though. Preliminary discussions are under way to explore moving the sculpture. Among the suggestions: moving it to a less conspicuous spot on the courthouse grounds.

"We're in the process of looking at redesigning the whole plaza in front of the building," said Susan H. Harrison, head of the art and architecture program at GSA. Besides making the area safer, officials hope to create more parking for the handicapped and a more parklike setting.

Mr. Sugarman says he might agree to relocate the sculpture for such reasons. But he had not been told of the marshal's request to remove it from the grounds altogether, and he called it "ridiculous."

"There's been no problem with security in all these years," he said. "I'd think by now that even if they don't like the work, people would have gotten used to it."

The views of the public and the artist would weigh heavily in any decision affecting the sculpture, Ms. Harrison said.

Local art leaders were quick to suggest the "security threat" may be a ruse. "It seems to me that on one level that's a red herring," said Brenda Richardson, deputy director of art for the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It's a way of getting away from saying 'Aesthetically we can't stand this piece, and we don't want it in our eyesight.' "

Judge Benson E. Legg, head of the courthouse building committee and one of the sculpture's most persistent critics, denies that. The judges were not even aware the marshal was writing the letter, he said.

"That letter is not a stalking horse; it's not a pretext," he said. However, he and his colleagues strongly support its premise, he added.

People with an opinion about the sculpture or ideas for the plaza may share them at the meeting next week, he said.

It has been 20 years since Mr. Sugarman submitted his design.

From the start, Maryland's federal bench didn't like it, and said JTC so. And the bright colors, intended by Mr. Sugarman to elicit an emotional response, were unsuitable, they said.

"There is enough emotional impact inside a courthouse without attempting to generate it artificially on the outside," one unnamed judge was quoted as saying when the sculpture was proposed.

They also considered the sculpture dangerous -- a potential shelter for people bent on mischief or assault on the public. Or so they said.

"We used to say that because we thought it was the only way we could get rid of the damn thing," Judge Northrop now says. "I always felt, still do, it's not a proper statue for the courthouse."

There were pickets and public meetings. Time magazine and the New York Times profiled the controversy.

Ultimately, Mr. Sugarman's sculpture was built and stayed put.

The grumbling at the courthouse subsided. But it has never stopped.

"I think it would make a great fish reef," said Marshal Sewell.

"Forget about safety -- I just feel it belongs in a playground," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul M. Rosenberg, who also called it a "monstrosity."

A few years ago, one judge even dreamed up a plan to give "Baltimore Federal" to the city.

Take our sculpture. Please.

The city responded that it seemed just fine where it was.

While the judges should not dictate artwork, says Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, "I think that the views of everyone who works here day in and day out should be listened to and respected."

"Baltimore Federal" does have defenders. Well, at least one defender -- all that could be found during a courthouse survey last week.

"I think it's neat -- very abstract," said Darrick Morton, a court security officer. "You can see different seasons in it -- spring, summer. I'd like to see it stay."

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