Art or bust?

The Baltimore Sun

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.

But even if the statue stays at Harborplace, Gilmore and city Planning Director Doug McCoach said the city has several issues to resolve.

For example, they said, the owners of Harborplace traditionally build a Santa Claus pavilion in the same spot every fall and have plans to build an even larger one this year. The city has to decide whether there is enough room for both the Santa Claus house and the Schaefer statue.

McCoach said he would like to see any works of public art added in a thoughtful way, so they help tell a story about the city.

"I'm opposed to plopping them down all over town," he said of proposed statues. "I'd like to see a narrative for putting them in context."

The idea of a statue to Schaefer is a vision of several longtime admirers of his, including Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman and chief executive of First Mariner Bancorp; Lebow-Sachs, now senior vice president of external relations at Kennedy Krieger Institute; and Mark Wasserman, Schaefer's development coordinator in Baltimore and now senior vice president of the University of Maryland Medical System.

Schaefer, 85, served as Baltimore's mayor from 1971 to 1987, governor of Maryland from 1987 to 1995, and state comptroller from 1999 to 2007. He was mayor during Baltimore's first City Fair and the openings of Harborplace, the National Aquarium and the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and is widely credited with assembling a team that made Baltimore a leader in waterfront revitalization.

Hale came up with the idea for a statue and selected Carroll, a Baltimore-based artist, to be the sculptor. Hale said he would be willing to underwrite its entire cost if necessary, although he's open to the idea of seeking donations from the public.

Hale said he could erect the statue on private land he owns in Canton but believes the Inner Harbor would be a more fitting spot because Schaefer did so much there.

"I can think of no one who has had a greater impact on the architecture and skyline of the city, and no one who has had a greater impact on the waterfront," Hale said.

Putting the statue at Harborplace would show Schaefer's "breadth of vision, his gut instincts about the harbor," Lebow-Sachs said. "Look at how that whole part of the city has taken off. So much of that came from his strength and forcefulness and determination."

But others say they are concerned that the statue's installation could lead to requests for waterfront statues of more elected officials or private figures who have also had an impact on the Inner Harbor, such as former Rouse Co. executives James Rouse and Mathias DeVito.

"Pretty soon the Inner Harbor will look like Gettysburg," said Adam Blumenthal, executive director of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

At the same time, he said, others deserve to be recognized for the roles they played in the Inner Harbor's transformation.

"Certainly, Mayor [Theodore] McKeldin was responsible for the early work," he said. "Schaefer was hugely important, but without [city redevelopment officials] Marty Millspaugh, Walter Sondheim and many others, the Inner Harbor never would have happened."

Earlier this year, Andrew Frank, a top aide to Mayor Sheila Dixon, circulated a memo suggesting that civic leaders might want to think about ways to honor up to four mayors who presided over Baltimore while the Inner Harbor was being rebuilt. In addition to Schaefer, they are Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, mayor from 1967 to 1971; Clarence H. Du Burns, 1987; and Kurt Schmoke, 1987 to 1999.

The proposed Schaefer statue is actually one of several in the works for downtown Baltimore, including one of Burns, which has no location at the moment; a statue of Pope John Paul II, planned for a proposed prayer garden near the Baltimore Basilica; and a statue honoring "men and women of the Sea Services," planned for Constellation Dock.

The last Baltimore mayor to have a statue downtown is Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., who has side-by-side statues in Charles Center. Samuel Smith, who led the city in the 1830s, has a statue in Federal Hill; it was moved from the Inner Harbor to make way for the construction of Harborplace.

Lebow-Sachs said she has no objections to a public review process for the Schaefer statue, because she wants it to be carried out with public knowledge and support.

"It's a very big deal to do something like this, and I want it to be done right for Governor Schaefer ... not something where people say, 'It's in the wrong place,'" she said. "When we dedicate this, I want us to have done it totally right, so the governor can enjoy it."

But Lebow-Sachs said she also would like to see the project move ahead as quickly as possible.

"I don't want to cut any corners, but I want it to be done in a timely fashion," she said. "I would like to see this happen for the governor in his lifetime. ... I don't want to put it off for 10 years."

Sun art critic Glenn McNatt contributed to this article.

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