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Mural draws new offer

The Baltimore Sun

The Anne Arundel County schools superintendent offered yesterday to display a mural depicting a black man breaking free from bondage, after the county executive was criticized by the African-American community for rejecting the artwork as inappropriate.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell spoke yesterday with an official from ArtWalk, the nonprofit group that commissioned the mural, which also includes a collage of children's paintings

Maxwell said he hopes possible sites can be discussed as early as next week.

County Executive John R. Leopold again refused Thursday to display the mural on the exterior of the county government's main building in Annapolis, which faces a historically black community. His action prompted an outcry among local African-Americans and the state NAACP.

"It was my hope that this situation could have been worked out and the artwork could have been hung at the Arundel Center as planned," Maxwell said in an e-mail statement. "I am very optimistic that we will be able to come up with some arrangement."

ArtWalk officials said they were pleased with the school system's invitation but that they have also received other offers of help and want to keep their options open for a site that would give the work maximum visibility.

Leopold declined to comment yesterday on Maxwell's offer, but his schools liaison, Robert C. Leib, said, "If they've chosen to enter into this, that's their own free will."

Leopold and Maxwell have publicly bickered in front of the governor over school funding and traded barbs during the school budget process last spring, with Leopold accusing Maxwell of being financially irresponsible and Maxwell saying Leopold was neglecting the schools' needs. They sent dueling letters to the local news media, each blaming the other for a lack of communication.

When a county charter school was about to close last summer because it couldn't find a suitable building - and the superintendent was accused of being hostile and disenfranchising minority students - Leopold stepped in at the eleventh hour with an offer to pay for portable classrooms.

Nevertheless, schools spokesman Bob Mosier said, "This is not about competition. ... This is about the superintendent wanting to showcase work done by our students."

Dan Nataf, a local politics observer who runs the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, said Maxwell's latest move was not unexpected, considering the tensions between the leaders.

"It's fine to curry favor with the public, but for Maxwell to do it in a way that embarrasses the political official who holds the cards to your budget might not be the best way to do it," Nataf said. "It's a dangerous game, trying to get credit for doing that which the other didn't try to do. He should be careful about that."

Leopold was criticized this week by the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights activists for refusing to allow the mural, which he called "busy and inappropriate," to be displayed on the exterior of the Arundel Center.

Leopold said doing so would set an unwanted precedent and offered instead to display the work by local African-American artist George "Lassie" Belt and 15 local children inside the building.

Officials with ArtWalk, who are installing murals at six sites in Annapolis to mark the 300th anniversary of the city's charter, accepted Leopold's offer after meeting with him Thursday but said they were "disappointed."

Sally Wern Comport, co-founder and curator of ArtWalk, said she received a phone call from the superintendent yesterday morning as she drove around the city scouting sites for the mural. State officials and private citizens also have offered possible sites for the work, but nothing has been agreed on, she said.

"I was thrilled to get the generous invitation," Comport said. "I think they're very open to it and excited about it, but we really want to make sure this is a significant site to our purpose."

Political wrangling, she said, doesn't fit into the equation.

"ArtWalk has never intended to jump into a political arena with this art," Comport said. "We never could have imagined this kind of eruption in public sentiment."

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