Public Art: Who Decides?

The Baltimore Sun

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?"

Alex Castro, another artist on the panel, questioned the figure's heroic stance. "I just don't see him as a knight in shining armor, staking claim to the Inner Harbor," Castro said.

One commission member suggested a more playful treatment of Schaefer might be appropriate, noting the popularity of a poster of Schaefer clad in an old-fashioned bathing suit, wearing a straw hat and holding a rubber duck. Beyond such specific criticisms, commission members raised the question of whether the Schaefer statue deserves such a central location. They noted that the Inner Harbor was a collaborative effort, involving many different people working over decades. Putting his statue between the Harborplace pavilions practically implies that Schaefer was responsible for everything all around. But would that be fair to others such as developers James W. Rouse and Matthias J. DeVito, civic leader Walter Sondheim Jr. and Republican Mayor Theodore McKeldin, who launched the effort to redevelop the Inner Harbor in 1963?

Others are concerned about the site-specific nature of the art. The panel was told that any location along Pratt Street should be considered temporary, because the Pratt Street corridor is going to be reconstructed and any statue there would most likely have to be relocated.

Panel member Steve Ziger, an architect, said he believes the Pratt Street locations should be ruled out if the statue would have to be moved several years after it is installed. It would make more sense, he said, to choose a site that could serve as a permanent home from the beginning and design the statue for that site.

To be sure, there are countless ways to approach a work such as this. One artist might make a sculpture entirely out of the material used to fill potholes, since Schaefer was zealous about filling them. Another might do an abstract piece, just as the McKeldin Fountain honors former Mayor McKeldin without recreating a likeness of him.

Carroll said he considered other approaches but concluded that a traditional statue would hold up well over time and be well received in Baltimore. He noted that many people dislike Jonathan Borofsky's abstract aluminum figure in front of Pennsylvania Station, and indicated that may be why the Schaefer statue is getting so much scrutiny. The reaction to the Borofsky piece, he said, "is very much why we're here today."

Castro said he can't understand why Baltimore tends to be conservative in matters of public art.

"For 25 years, I've wondered why Baltimore has this mentality of feeling it has to hold itself back," he said. "This city somehow has a reluctance to go on the national stage."

It's not hard to feel some level of empathy for the artist, given the conflicting challenges he faces from his clients and the review panel. In some ways, this is a politically correct process, designed to make sure the city isn't criticized for accepting a gift that turns out to be unpopular, and to encourage from the artist the best possible work. Carroll may have thought he would sidestep controversy by taking a traditional approach to creating Schaefer's statue and doing the most realistic figure he could. But in his effort to avoid making waves, he has disappointed those who look for public art always to be unpredictable, even jarring.

Carroll is in a tough spot. He wants to do something traditional, out of respect for Schaefer. There are dozens of locations around the city where that could be appropriate. But the Inner Harbor, where Hale wants the statue to be, is a setting where a less traditional approach might work better. If the statue weren't planned for the Inner Harbor, style might not be such an issue. Because there are more "feet on the street" at that location, it is getting a higher level of scrutiny.

Meredith Millspaugh, who spoke to the panel representing the Baltimore City Historical Society, suggests that a better location for Schaefer's statue might be City Hall Plaza, the newly landscaped open space between City Hall and War Memorial Plaza. She believes his figure could be the starting point for a long line of mayoral statues, all within view of City Hall. The downside for Hale, of course, is that he believes Schaefer stood out from other mayors, and he may not want to pay for a statue that could get lost in a larger assemblage.

Walter Daly, another panel member, favors taking the Schaefer figure off the pedestal and putting it amid the people. Daly suggested putting Schaefer on the upper level of the Light Street pavilion of Harborplace, outside the food court, where he might stand on a balcony and survey the harbor. It also would give people a chance to walk right up to the statue and interact with it, as if it were just another Inner Harbor visitor.

Another alternative might be to have Schaefer sitting casually in the brick amphitheater between the Harborplace pavilions, as if he's just waiting for the next concert to begin and watching the constant parade of people walking by. That would put him in the prime, heavily trafficked location that Hale wants, but it would give the figure an element of accessibility that would make it less stodgy and predictable than a man on a pedestal. It would be the ideal place for a Kodak moment.

A seated figure of Schaefer would even have a precedent. A figure of former Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. can be found seated on a bench near the entrance to the One Charles Center office tower on North Charles Street. Perhaps over time, Baltimore could have a series of former mayors seated in all sorts of locations, still watching over the city.

That's one idea out of many. For now, it appears there's more work to be done by Carroll if the city is to be convinced and a statue of Schaefer sees the light of day. If there is a bright spot to the debate so far, it's the creation of the art commission to lead a more focused and thoughtful review of proposals for public art in the city.

For a panel that had never met before, the level of discourse was high-minded, intellectually sophisticated and fiercely protective of the public realm. One came away with the feeling that the artist and the donors got a fair hearing and were treated with respect, even though their proposals weren't greeted with open arms, and the panel was independent and had the best interests of the city at heart. For a subject as volatile and potentially messy as public art, one can't ask for more than that.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad