In Annapolis' arts district, it's chickens to the rescue

City hopes to resurrect state-designate area with 20 fiberglass chicken sculptures

  • Gavin Buckley and his son Miles, 5, play with the first chicken sculpture in Annapolis' arts district.
Gavin Buckley and his son Miles, 5, play with the first chicken… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
August 30, 2012|By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

The first of the 51/2-foot-tall fiberglass chickens roosts in a vacant lot beside an Annapolis restaurant, a tire's skid marks stretched across its belly and a set of X's for eyes.

Apparently, the owners joke, it had trouble crossing the road.

The next chicken might be a robot, a spectacle of glitter, the canvas for an underwater mural or, perhaps, a mosaic of crabs and sailboats for a twist on the classic Annapolis images the statues were designed to avoid.

"If it was a boat or a fish, I wouldn't be into doing it. But a chicken is funny," artist Casey Johnson said as he surveyed Chicken Little and contemplated his own design. "I think it's a good start to the district."

To revive the floundering Capital City Arts District, Annapolis settled on a half-dozen chickens — although planners envision as many as 20 — to draw attention to a stretch of West Street meant to be a beacon of creativity.

A citywide contest ended last week with 10 applications to decorate the chickens, though the fundraising campaign has financed only five more so far. But business leaders, politicians and arts lovers hope the birds will succeed in hatching an arts district that seems to have died before it began.

City officials pushed for the state arts-district designation in 2008 and won approval to offer an array of tax incentives to attract an arts population. But a city budget crisis and reorganization left the district behind on its paperwork and without a clear identity or future.

"The district was not really existing," said April Nyman, executive director of the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, which accepted a $25,000 city grant and took over the district this summer.

By then, restaurateurs Gavin Buckley and Jody Danek had come up with a plan for businesses to install chicken sculptures and for artists to decorate them. The idea was part marketing, part civic responsibility, and part fun.

"When you walk down the street and see a 5-foot painted chicken, it inspires you a little bit," Buckley said.

"People talk about it," Danek added, "And if people are talking about it, that's good for business."

The two own three restaurants along West Street. They paid an artist to design the chicken sculptures — which cost just under $1,000 apiece — and installed the first statue in front of their Thai place, Lemongrass.

Buckley launched a fundraising effort for corporate sponsors, riffing off UNICEF's advertising formula. On his posters, a forlorn, dirt-streaked young man is framed by the promise that for only $2 a day, you can "make a difference in a poor artist's life."

In an inset photo, a young woman plants a peck on the beak of a white fiberglass chicken.

Buckley said he was inspired by the raging citywide debate on whether to allow chickens in residential backyards, a seemingly straightforward question that sucked up political air for nearly a year.

"We didn't want sailboats. The crabs were in Baltimore," he said. "When the city said you could have chickens in the backyard, we said, 'Hey, we should have chickens in the front yard.' "

City officials, meanwhile, have no intention of reinventing Annapolis' classic symbols as a historic Colonial city and the nation's sailing capital.

"I don't think chickens represent Annapolis," Mayor Joshua Cohen said. "We're not the chicken capital of America."

Nonetheless, Cohen has deemed them "cool."

"The chickens are great," he said. "They're a little fun. They're tongue-in-cheek, and they get people talking."

The Lemongrass chicken is the second public art installation to go up in Annapolis this summer. Down the street near The Westin hotel, a sculpture in a traffic circle has evoked both admiration for hinting at the ribs of a boat and spawned jokes about "The Flintstones."

Buckley and Danek couldn't be more thrilled.

"We're really happy to see it get reaction," Buckley said. "Whether you hate it or love it, it got a reaction."

"It's a little absurd," Danek said of the chickens. "But anything can be a blank canvas, and anything can be beautiful."

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