The four squares of Mount Vernon Place sat eerily empty yesterday, cordoned off by a gold-painted chain-link fence.
Erected Sunday evening, the fence is the first phase of an uncommon collaborative outdoor exhibit sponsored by the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Walters Art Museum. Titled Beyond the Compass, Beyond the Square, the exhibit is designed to draw attention to the Mount Vernon park.
In the next couple of weeks, more pieces will be installed in the square, and on March 29, the fence will come down to reveal interactive works of art such as a bridge made of steel and knitted rope and a sculpture that emits sounds and visual patterns. The artwork will be on display through late May.
"It's a wonderful adventure," said William Noel, curator of the Walters' exhibit Maps: Finding Our Place in the World.
"That park is a national landmark and one of the most beautiful earthen spots in America," he said. "To use that as a platform for expression of talented students within the city of Baltimore -- going through all the protocols they need to go through -- is a wonderful way of bringing attention to a world-class monument."
The park is the centerpiece of a National Landmark Historic District, which features 19th-century architecture and the imposing cylindrical monument that was the nation's first to commemorate George Washington, in 1815.
The project began early last year, when Noel reached out to MICA professor George Ciscle about spawning an off-site exhibition to run in conjunction with Maps: Finding Our Place in the World.
Ciscle teaches a seminar on exhibition development, which covers the organizational and promotional aspects of setting up an art exhibit. Last year, the class produced At Freedom's Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland at the Maryland Historical Society.
But in the more than 10 years that Ciscle has overseen the class, they have always set up indoor exhibitions at MICA and off-site galleries.
"I thought, 'What about having an exhibition that looks at the center point of Baltimore -- the nexus of the cultural community?'" he said.
The class has also traditionally worked with outside artists. This time, Ciscle opted to recruit MICA students, and enlisted the help of fellow professor Jann Rosen-Queralt. They selected 10 artists from Rosen-Queralt's art sculpture class to create pieces for the exhibition.
Students in Ciscle's class reached out to community organizations such as the Friends of Mount Vernon Place to present and explain their ideas for the park. They presented a plan to the city and were awarded the necessary permits.
"I think it benefits a lot of people," said Christopher Carroll, chief of parks for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. "There were some initial concerns with the fence going up, but they were vetted through the community. The students and their teachers did a great job of selling this."
One of the students organized an urban trash pickup called the Baltimore Sweep Action Parade, which invites community members to clean certain streets leading to the park on the morning of March 29. The trash collected will be deposited in a large steel and Plexiglas container at the base of the monument.
"Art can be functional and productive instead of just aesthetic," said Jonathan Taube, a sophomore at MICA who came up with the idea. "It's a celebration of [sweeping] and the fact that it's something anybody can do."
Yesterday morning, pedestrians such as Volker Stewart warily eyed the golden fence as they passed by.
"My first impulse was, 'Oh, good grief, what's the city going to do to the park that they're going to fence off the whole thing,'" said Stewart, a co-owner of the restaurant and bar The Brewer's Art.
Stewart's tone changed when he learned of the project's full scope.
"Interesting," he said. "It sounds like a lot of fun."
One of the artistic goals of the fence is to separate people from the park so they can better realize its true natural beauty, Ciscle said. When it comes down, they will have a fuller appreciation of the park.
And the art installed inside will be on full display for the rest of the community -- hopefully bringing the artists' work to a larger audience than if it were displayed inside a museum, he said.
"These young artists can learn through this," Ciscle said. "It's not just about making your artwork in your studio. It's about an audience. It's about how to connect the work you're doing with an audience."