Courthouse art returns to an unwelcoming public

Sprawling sculpture raises questions of cost, aesthetics

July 09, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

To the judges who never liked the sprawling, brightly colored sculpture anyhow, its return to Baltimore's federal courthouse might not be the worst part.

More maddening might be the estimated price tag - $226,500 for its renovation and reinstallation. That's double what the piece cost taxpayers in 1977 and twice its current appraised value.

"Good gosh," said Senior U.S. District Judge Edward S. Northrop, one of the sculpture's earliest detractors. "I just can't understand that."

The General Services Administration, manager of all federal buildings, defends the cost as necessary to restore a significant piece of art that will anchor a major redesign of the plaza in front of the Edward A. Garmatz courthouse.

And in some ways, it is fitting that the renovation project raises a few eyebrows. The sculpture, "Baltimore Federal," is no stranger to contention.

Even before the piece was finished more than 20 years ago, Maryland's federal judges launched an intense, far-reaching debate about the appropriateness of federally subsidized art by trying to block its placement at the courthouse.

Some judges questioned whether the giant aluminum piece presented a security hazard or, at least, an aesthetic one. They were the first, but not the last, to ask what the abstract blue, yellow, orange and green archway was meant to represent.

Now, some say, the time and cost for its renovation suggest "Baltimore Federal" could be more representative of the federal government than anyone realized.

When the sculpture's 20 constituent pieces were dismantled and hauled away in October 1997 to be repainted and refurbished, the conservation project was expected to cost about $56,500 and take about four months, GSA records show.

But delays in the broader plaza redesign project kept the sculpture away for almost three years. That added $30,000 in storage costs for the piece.

And the original estimate didn't include the cost of reinstalling the 19-foot-tall, 45-foot-long piece. The final bill isn't in, but the installation work was estimated to cost $140,000.

The project was funded through the GSA's Fine Arts Program, responsible for the care and upkeep of the agency's collection of more than 3,000 public art works across the country. In Baltimore, agency officials say the renovation could increase the value of the courthouse sculpture, appraised at $100,000 before the repair work.

"Our job is to maintain federal assets, which include our artwork," said Robert A. Peck, commissioner of GSA's Public Buildings Service.

Extra costs and extra time are nothing new to the history of "Baltimore Federal."

The sculpture usually is described as a $98,000 project. But as New York artist George Sugarman was working on the piece in 1977, he asked GSA to approve an additional $13,831 for his contract, agency records show. GSA officials consented, putting the final bill at $111,831.

In a letter to GSA requesting payment Sept. 6, 1977, Sugarman said it was all worthwhile.

"I would like to add that in my opinion, the work looks very beautiful and it's just as I imagined it to be for the site," wrote Sugarman, who died last year at age 87. "In spite of all the difficulties and delays, I must conclude that it has been a worthwhile experience."

Twenty years later, inspection reports showed that Sugarman's work did need repairs. The sculpture's metal plates were dirty and dented.

The work was partly repainted once, but the colors didn't match the originals and paint roller marks showed on some parts of the sculpture. It had suffered graffiti scribbles and one plank was badly bent from people sitting, standing and jumping on it.

Then, as the GSA was making conservation plans, the sculpture was confronted with a new threat.

After the April 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, then-U.S. Marshal Scott Sewell identified the multicolored sculpture as a security risk to Baltimore's federal courthouse.

Sewell asked GSA to remove "Baltimore Federal," saying it could be used to hide a bomb. If it exploded, the metal plates could become shrapnel, he warned.

The argument was similar to one made by Judge Northrop in 1975. When asking GSA to cancel its contract with Sugarman, he suggested that the sculpture posed a security risk.

In the 1970s, the arts community rallied behind the sculptor, and GSA stuck with its decision to put his creation at the newly constructed Garmatz building.

But officials and Sugarman agreed that after the sculpture's renovation it could be moved from its spot near the building to the corner of Lombard and Hanover streets.

That is where, in recent weeks, workers have bolted the sculpture back in place and are landscaping the grounds around it. The complete plaza redesign, expected to cost about $600,000, should be finished by the end of this year or by spring.

The sculpture hasn't exactly received a warm welcome home - with a few exceptions. JoAnn Partee, who works in the clerk's office, said she has always liked its bright colors and added that the metal canopies offer a quiet, shady retreat.

But most of the courthouse crowd ruefully joke that the piece looked best three years ago, when it was leaving town on a truck.

"Basically, the people who use the building every day don't like it," U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg said.

Said Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, "Maybe it's not everyone's favorite piece of art, but it is part of the heritage of the building, and it certainly looks better where it is now."

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