Trying to mend fences

The chain-link fences surrounding Mount Vernon Place were opened briefly yesterday by the art student who had, with the city's approval, cut off public access to the popular downtown park with his gold spray-painted creation.

By late afternoon, though, access was sealed off again when the fences - made less stable by the removal of one section in each of the park's squares - appeared in danger of being knocked down by high winds.

For safety reasons, the artist and officials at the Maryland Institute College of Art - after explaining they were opening the fences in a spirit of compromise - replaced the sections that had been removed and will revisit the issue today.

"Hopefully, opening this gate is shifting the conversation, rather than taking it away," said Lee B. Freeman, the 22-year-old MICA student who created the fences. "It's definitely important to keep the conversation open and keep it positive."

Under the original exhibit plans, the fences - intended by the artist to increase the public's appreciation for the park - were to remain up until March 29. Decried by some residents as an eyesore, by others as an inconvenience, the fences are the first phase of a larger public art exhibit, Beyond the Compass, Beyond the Square.

Freeman has been criticized in blog posts and phone calls for sealing off the park. Critics of the piece had placed red stickers reading "EXCLUSIONIST" on the fences, and as of yesterday morning, another had left a statement - in wadded up paper stuffed into fence holes to spell out, "Free the park."

Later yesterday, just moments after he began removing sections of the fences, Freeman was spit at by a critic.

"A guy walked up to me and said, 'Are you the artist who put up the fence?'" said Andrew Schenker, a former faculty member who is videotaping the exhibition. "I said, no and pointed Lee out. He walked over and spit at him."

"I really wasn't so sure what to do when that happened," Freeman said. "I said to him, 'Let's talk about it.'" The spitter walked away, though, he said.

Freeman said that despite the early opening, his work succeeded in its goal of getting people thinking and talking about the space.

"I'm not sure I would say any of what happened was negative," he said. "But some comments were not as productive as they could be."

Although the exhibit procured all the necessary city permits, City Council member William H. Cole IV said the matter should have come before the entire council.

Cole said he plans to present a measure at the April 7 City Council meeting that would require a public hearing when private organizations request to close a park for more than 72 hours at a time.

"I'm not sure that the permit should have ever been approved," he said. "You shouldn't be closing off public space for any extended period of time without significant input from a wider audience than what they got in order to obtain the permit. Things like this can't be done in a vacuum."

Cole on Wednesday asked Freeman to unlock at least one of the spaces.

Freeman said the decision to restore public access to the park was made to keep the conversation civil, show a spirit of compromise and avoid any negative impact on the nine other artists whose works will be displayed there.

Freeman, who put his telephone number on the fences and has made a point of engaging residents in dialogue, said he received many requests to remove the fences - "some very polite, some not."

Freeman's work is one of 10 pieces that make up Beyond the Compass, Beyond the Square. The exhibit was approved by the city Department of Transportation, the city Department of Recreation and Parks and the City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).

The Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, as part of the approval process, had submitted four groups of concerns to CHAP - chief among them the exhibit's lengthy duration (until late May); whether allowing the exhibit at the historic park would set a bad precedent; whether it was receiving enough scrutiny; whether it would pose safety hazards and inconveniences to residents; and whether it could lead to damage of existing artwork.

MICA's curator-in residence, George Ciscle, responded to the association's concerns in a letter to the historical commission, emphasizing the school's expertise.

In his letter, Ciscle wrote that the timing of putting up and taking down the fence was crucial. "The process develops over four weeks, to carry out the artist's statement. ... The only period in which Freeman's artistic intention can fully be understood and experienced is within the timeline that has been laid out."

Paul Warren, vice president of the neighborhood association, said Wednesday that the concerns were passed on to the historical commission for resolution, but "instead, they just approved the permit."

Ciscle disagreed with that statement, saying CHAP's approval showed the issues had been resolved. If the association still had concerns, he said, it should have passed them on to MICA.

"Our impression was everybody had approved it," he said.

Attempts by The Sun to reach CHAP were unsuccessful.

MICA professor Jann Rosen-Queralt called the controversy "a learning situation."

"Students are our primary focus, and sometimes they take huge risks not knowing where they're going," she said. "They learn from their successes, and they learn from their less successful challenges. We really want to give them the space to do that."

Sun reporter Abigail Tucker contributed to this article.

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