Art or bust?

Proposed Schaefer statue at Harborplace stirs debate over appropriate public sculpture

October 11, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

If several well-connected supporters of William Donald Schaefer have their way, a larger- than-life statue of the former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor will soon rise at the heart of the Inner Harbor.

For them, the statue would be a fitting tribute to a man who is credited with helping rejuvenate the waterfront area: a 9-foot-tall bronze statue of Schaefer atop a 6-foot pedestal between the two pavilions at Harborplace, dressed in a suit, looking the way he did when it opened in 1980.

But the $300,000 to $500,000 project has been delayed for months by city officials. They say they want to go slow to avoid the sort of criticism that surfaced when other works were installed with little public review, most notably the much- derided, 51-foot-tall aluminum figure called Male/Female in front of Penn Station.

"You know how combustible public art can be - location and subject matter," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. "We just want to make sure options are explored and the right decisions are made."

And others question whether erecting a statue - of even someone as prominent as Schaefer - is an appropriate use for land that has become the gateway to the Inner Harbor for millions, and in many ways the epicenter of the city.

"It isn't the idea behind it as much as the location," said Al Barry, a private planning consultant. "If someone wants to do it in their own property, that's one thing. But the Inner Harbor is more important than just one person."

But the centrality and visibility of the Harborplace setting are exactly why Schaefer's admirers want his statue to go there.

"He deserves to be in a very prominent spot," said Lainy Lebow-Sachs, who was Schaefer's appointments secretary during his years as governor and mayor and is a member of the group that proposed the statue. "William Donald Schaefer is in a league by himself."

Across the nation, public art is frequently the source of controversy and complaints. In New York, Richard Serra's steel sculpture Tilted Arc was removed from a public plaza in 1989 after federal workers complained that it was "threatening." In Chicago, a 50-foot-tall work donated by Pablo Picasso in 1967 has become one of the most loved and hated sculptures in the city, compared to everything from an Afghan hound to the head of a baboon.

The most controversial works often are commissioned by private parties and donated to cities, whose leaders are reluctant to turn away "gifts" but then draw criticism for permitting art that others deem ugly or inappropriate.

As a matter of course, cities would be wise never to agree to install donated works "at the whim of an individual donor, no matter how well-intentioned" or how expensive the gift, Barry said.

"There has to be a process to consider the location and whether the artwork is competent," he said. "Otherwise, the city runs the risk that everyone will want to be in the most prominent location. That's the danger."

The subject of all the fuss, meanwhile, says he's flattered by the idea of a statue but not sure it will ever happen.

"If they want to put it up, be my guest," Schaefer said. "It's a great honor that somebody even thought about it."

Schaefer said he likes the location between the two pavilions, because of its visibility, and would be pleased to have a statue of himself there if it adds to the setting. "That's where the traffic is. It never stops. It never stops."

But he said he also can understand why people would want to consider other harbor locations. "It all depends how it's done," he said during a visit to the site yesterday. "This is the Inner Harbor. It has to be very special."

In a preliminary design by sculptor Rodney Carroll, Schaefer would be framed by Harborplace's glass pavilions and facing the downtown skyline, his left hand holding rolled-up blueprints bearing the seals of Baltimore and Maryland, his right hand beckoning people toward the Inner Harbor and points east.

The estimated price tag would make the statue one of the most costly works of public art in city history. Supporters say they're prepared to pay for it privately, so no taxpayer funds would be required, but the statue still needs approval from city officials before it can be placed on public property.

The city for many years had a panel called the Civic Design Commission that reviewed and approved works of art planned for public settings, but that group has been inactive in recent years. It is being reconstituted to evaluate the proposal for the Schaefer statue and others, but city officials say it won't be in place before the next mayoral term begins in December.

In the meantime, Gilmore said, the city is considering other possible harbor locations for the Schaefer statue, so the new art commission has more options. He said two other sites under consideration are the West Shore of the Inner Harbor and McKeldin Plaza, near Pratt and Light streets.

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