Public Art: Who Decides?

Should a 9-foot-tall statue of former mayor and governor William Donald Schaefer rise above passers-by on a prominent corner at the Inner Harbor?

December 09, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

What is it about public art that sparks such passionate debate?

It usually begins with a generous impulse: to honor a prominent citizen, beautify the city, show respect for the importance of art in our lives. But the process of deciding just what art to put where frequently inspires strong disagreement - contention that, on reflection, has obvious roots.

Public art is meant to provoke, to enlighten, to provide new ways of seeing the world around us. To be successful, an artist must have freedom to create.

But those who pay for the art and those who decide where it will be placed also must be heard. And then, the public must decide, sometimes over the course of decades, whether the art becomes a beloved part of the city. The difficulty of achieving consensus among all of these groups is clear.

The challenge is illuminated by the current debate over a proposal by a private group headed by Baltimore businessman Edwin F. Hale Sr. to pay for and erect a larger-than-life statue of William Donald Schaefer, former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, on the Inner Harbor shoreline, preferably in the plaza between the two Harborplace pavilions.

Although the sculpture has been in the discussion stage since early this year, the recent unveiling of sculptor Rodney Carroll's preliminary designs unleashed a new flurry of comments, for and against. Not since a giant, gender-bending figure appeared in front of Pennsylvania Station - another gift to the city - has a local work of public art caused such a stir.

Who would have thought that a well-meaning effort to honor a longtime civil servant would hit a nerve the way the proposed Schaefer statue has? Actually, anyone who knows about public art could have seen it coming. Add the fact that the subject is a well-known figure who enjoys the controversy he sometimes stirs and you have the perfect recipe for conflict.

Carroll has proposed a nine-foot-tall figure of Schaefer dressed in a business suit, holding rolled-up blueprints in his left hand and gesturing with his right hand, atop a six-foot pedestal. The estimated cost is $300,000 to $500,000. Hale's group has offered to pay for the work so no taxpayer funds are involved, but it needs permission from the city to put it on public land. To win that permission, the donors need approval from the city's Public Art Commission, a newly appointed nine-member panel that is charged with reviewing proposals for gifts of public art on city land and art created with public funds.

Members of the panel had problems with many aspects of the proposal - from the location to the style of the statue and its proposed height - which they raised during a 90-minute public presentation on Nov. 29.

Much of the discussion had to do with the question of where the statue should go and how it would fit into its setting. Catherine Mahan of Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architecture firm hired by the city, identified four sites for the panel to consider, starting with the one Hale favors. The others were a spot on the west shore of the Inner Harbor, in line with Conway Street, and two spots on McKeldin Plaza, near Pratt and Light streets. Seeing all four options at once was like looking at a Where's Waldo puzzle in reverse: It was all Schaefer, all the time.

Hale has said he wants the statue at the Inner Harbor because Schaefer did so much to revive it. Today's Inner Harbor is synonymous with the new Baltimore, a place that has reinvented itself for the post-industrial economy of the 20th century and continues to evolve for the 21st.

The Inner Harbor has its share of abstract public art, including Mark di Suvero's Under Sky, One Family near the base of the World Trade Center and Kenneth Snelson's Easy Landing stainless steel piece at the Maryland Science Center. Carroll's traditional statue seemed to be a throwback to an earlier era, and that in itself became of point of discussion.

Darsie Alexander, a sculptor on the panel, said she saw a disconnect between the groundbreaking nature of the Inner Harbor redevelopment and the "old-fashioned" quality of Carroll's sculpture. She warned that putting a traditional statue along the refurbished shoreline isn't likely to help put Baltimore on the map as a destination for cutting-edge art - and therefore she feels Carroll's piece may be inconsistent with what the Inner Harbor is all about.

"On one hand, its stylistic presence is certainly not going to threaten anyone and it will be noticed and appreciated by Schaefer," Alexander said. "But this was one of the first major harbor redevelopments in the country, wasn't it? ... I think it can do more."

Anne Perkins, an attorney on the panel, said she was troubled by the idea of putting Schaefer on a pedestal.

"I always thought that a lot of Schaefer's power was that he was just a guy, that's how he connects to the people," she told the artist. "Putting him on a pedestal, whether it actually captures his spirit - I wonder if you thought about that?"

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