Putting some measure on public opinion of art

`Male/Female' work is major concern

October 09, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Frances Riepe came to the Maryland Historical Society Thursday night to voice her displeasure with Jonathan Borofsky's towering sculpture Male/Female, installed in front of Baltimore's Penn Station last spring.

But for the time being, Riepe's protest, like the sculpture itself, was going nowhere.

"For people who go to the station, it is an irritating presence. All you see is its feet," said Riepe, a Baltimore County resident who keeps a thick file of clippings and letters about the sculpture, and has circulated a petition in favor of its removal as part of what she calls "my personal crusade."

Thursday night, before she could speak, Riepe and nearly 100 others listened to a panel discussion on The Who, What & Why of Public Sculpture. The presentation by four city advocates of public art - meant to demystify how choices are made - praised Baltimore's impressive range of monuments, murals and sculptures as well as efforts to preserve them. The panelists also outlined the history behind the scope and placement of the city's public art.

And they attempted to put Male/Female in context.

"We were sensitive to the desire [that] ... if we could, it would be great to have a Baltimore or Maryland artist," said architect Peter Doo, vice president of the Municipal Art Society, the nonprofit group that commissioned the Borofsky piece. Among the finalists for the commission, the Maine artist was considered the most qualified for creating a work worthy of the venerable train station and the art society's 100th anniversary, Doo said.

The 50-foot aluminum figure is "a sensitive, spiritual piece that will be long lasting," said panelist Maren Hassinger, director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Showing slides of other city sculptures once considered incongruous eyesores, Kathleen Kotarba, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, spoke of the "ebb and flow of public opinion."

She noted, for example, that Orpheus, the 39-foot-tall statue at Fort McHenry honoring Francis Scott Key, was singled out by detractors in the past. Key's grandson opposed the allegorical work for its dearth of patriotic spirit. Others maintained that Orpheus did not mesh with the national park's historic character. It was "confusing to people," Kotarba said.

In 1962, the statue was moved a short distance within Fort McHenry to a less conspicuous spot. An effort in the early 1980s to move Orpheus once again to the new Harborplace, where proponents said it would be better appreciated, went nowhere.

Finally, 20 years ago, Kotarba noted, Orpheus received renewed recognition when it was restored through the funding efforts of the National Park Service and the Maryland Military Monuments Commission.

In her review of Orpheus and other sculptures that have withstood criticism, Kotarba suggested that Male/Female will ultimately become an organic fixture in Baltimore's cityscape, even as the cityscape evolves. "The world changes; the monuments for the most part stay put."

By the program's end, though, Riepe wasn't convinced that Male/Female would ever belong in the company of Penn Station.

Baltimore resident Jim Smith agreed. "I am a person who loves Baltimore, architecture and the public art in this city," he began. His question - "What steps are needed to remove Male/Female?" - garnered applause.

Panelist Jennifer Mange, public art coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, stressed that first, Smith would need to raise the money to remove the piece. "I would be happy to do that," Smith said.

Then, Riepe came to the microphone. "Did you realize where [Male/Female] would be situated?" she asked the panel. "The size and scale are inappropriate for where it stands," she said. The sculpture would be better suited to a location "out in the open or near the water."

Doo defended the piece's place, saying its relaxed stance was reminiscent of the Leonardo Da Vinci's study of human proportions, which also established the symmetry found in classical architecture, including Baltimore's Beaux-arts train station.

Muffled snickers erupted in the audience.

The "forum was a joke," said Riepe, who complained that residents were given too little time to make their case. Others complained that no panelist represented their point of view.

Nor were many audience members convinced that Male/Female would ever grow on them. How much time will it take before "we get used to it"? asked Riepe's friend, Eleanor Abell Owen. "We're not a bit used to it."

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