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Who should decide the fate of Baltimore’s oft-reviled 51-foot-tall, ‘Male/Female’ statue? | COMMENTARY

The $750,000 statue in front of Penn Station has survived wind, torrential downpours and even a maelstrom of criticism since it was installed in 2004. An editorial in The Sun at the time of its installation characterized the statue as "oversized, underdressed and woefully out of place." The work is by Maine artist Jonathan Borofsky and commissioned and paid for by the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun).
The $750,000 statue in front of Penn Station has survived wind, torrential downpours and even a maelstrom of criticism since it was installed in 2004. An editorial in The Sun at the time of its installation characterized the statue as "oversized, underdressed and woefully out of place." The work is by Maine artist Jonathan Borofsky and commissioned and paid for by the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun). (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

OK, we’ll admit it: We’ve not always looked kindly at the gender-bending, 51-foot-tall statue, “Male/Female,” that’s been standing watch outside Penn Station for the past 17 years. We once referred to it in an editorial as “oversized, underdressed, and woefully out of place.” But if one of the purposes of art is to get people talking, feeling and thinking, we also have to admit that the $750,000 sheet-metal man and woman, merged in the middle with a light at the heart, as obvious and kitschy as it may seem, has done its job. Like it or not, the statue, by artist Jonathan Borofsky, has gotten noticed and perhaps, maybe, if only a teeny-tiny little bit, has grown on those who initially rejected it as a garish monstrosity.

That rising sense of acceptance (or at least ambivalence) may explain why the statue seemed oddly missing when the development team looking to transform the historic train station and the surrounding area first presented renderings of their plans and, lo and behold, the statue wasn’t there. Penn State Partners has since explained that this does not mean Male/Female can’t stay but rather that it’s fate is currently undecided. It might stay. It might be moved elsewhere within the plaza. Or it might be shipped to an entirely different location in Baltimore. The developers claim to be neutral on the matter (or at least their views are unspoken). They’ve asked that a public consensus be reached.

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If we’ve learned nothing else from the last few years, it’s that statues matter. Whether it involves historic figures from the Confederacy or a 15th century Italian explorer or an 18th century Baltimorean who owned slaves, people are heavily invested in three-dimensional works of art. Male/Female doesn’t have the ties to racism that those pieces did, but it’s worth has been hotly debated many times. One of the earliest and most common complaints: Is this hunk of burnished aluminum really what we want visitors to Baltimore to see when they first step foot out of the region’s major passenger rail station? When it received national attention, with a mention in the “Zippy the Pinhead” comic strip two months after its unveiling, the debate only intensified.

To date, one of our favorite reactions to the continuing argument over Male/Female came 15 years ago from the president of the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City, which commissioned and paid for the statue. Beverley Compton acknowledged objections but thought the piece should stay: “I’m not sure I’d want Male/Female in my front yard, but on the other hand, Penn Station is not my front yard.”

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In fact, few locations in Baltimore are as quite a high profile as the Penn Station plaza, which not only fronts Charles Street and the busy Jones Falls Expressway, but the station is among Amtrak’s busiest. That’s one reason why this redevelopment project is so vital. And as high-speed rail service improves, as the Biden administration now promises, Penn Station’s importance as an economic engine will speed along as well, with its revival serving as a jumping off point for improved transit services citywide. Rail travel isn’t just about the past, its future is looking increasingly bright, given its low environmental impact and energy efficiency.

We agree with the developer: Let the people of Baltimore decide. Not just with the customary public hearings or written comment but through outreach. If that means spending some money to call people or knock on doors, so be it. Let’s decide this together. And it surely ought to be well-informed by the views of nearby residents and business owners as well as the folks at the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, who have some expertise in this arena. Let’s have a real conversation and maybe even listen to each other. Like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. That a piece is controversial doesn’t make it less valuable; it might make it more so. Even if it still strikes some members of the local editorial board as woefully out of place.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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