The public in public art

Our view: The debate over a Schaefer statue shows that public's interests can be represented

October 24, 2008

After a long and passionate debate, former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer appears likely to be honored with a prominent statue on Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Few would question the appropriateness of the honor or its location. But the proposal for a Schaefer statue has also performed another service for the city he loves. Questions about where this piece of public art might be located and what it should look like have reaffirmed the pivotal role of the Public Art Commission in these matters - the public's interest can be balanced against those of powerful individuals seeking to impose their view of art on the city.

The debate began over a proposal from Baltimore businessman Edwin F. Hale Sr.: He wanted to erect a 9-foot-tall figure of Mr. Schaefer in a business suit posed atop a 6-foot pedestal. Mr. Hale favored a heavily trafficked spot in the plaza between the two Harborplace pavilions. But the art commission's persistent questions about the monumental scale of the statue and its location led Mr. Hale to withdraw an offer to pay its estimated $500,000 cost. Mr. Hale thought he and sculptor Rodney Carroll should decide what the statue looked like and where it should go. Members of the commission had other ideas.

This week, the art commission gave preliminary approval to a new version of the Schaefer statue, to be located in a small garden near the Inner Harbor between the Light Street pavilion and the Baltimore Visitors Center. Mr. Carroll said he had solicited the views of commission members before making the proposal. They expressed appreciation for the new setting and lack of a pedestal. Now, the sponsor is Baltimore construction magnate Willard Hackerman, who built many of the structures that surround the Inner Harbor.

There may still be a few rough spots ahead as the project moves forward. But Mr. Schaefer says he's honored by his proposed likeness. And who knows what performance art he may produce when the latest version is unveiled.

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