A bicyclist passes reed poles, an artistic element on Veterans Memorial Bridge in Portland.
By DANIEL KANY
Arriving at a critical opinion about a work of public art is much more complex than thinking about art in a gallery or museum, primarily because we tend to be concerned with how we chose the public art, how we paid for it and whether we got our money's worth.
When there is anxiety about public art, it often stems from the fact that those are sometimes not easy questions to answer.
Portland's public art landscape has been expanded with two recent additions: "Tidal Moon," a large-scale granite sculpture at the Portland International Jetport, and the new Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Fore River between Portland and South Portland.
From an urban planning perspective, the Veterans Memorial is an excellent bridge that improves traffic, bicycle and pedestrian flow. It's no Penobscot Narrows Bridge (the most exciting bit of recent architecture in Maine), but it's handsome enough, and features nice details as well as some excellent views that will only improve when the old bridge is removed.
My concern about the bridge is that the public won't know what to think about its artistic embellishments. It's not clear whether they are architecture or art.
The elements in question include an off-bridge memorial and three spots on the bridge, each featuring nine bent poles. As you drive by, the spots on the bridge seem hip enough to engage Sprague Energy's recently painted oil tanks on the South Portland side with a sophisticated edge. But at the memorial, they look like flagpoles nodding off instead of standing at attention.
The idea is that these curved poles are "reed poles" (as in aquatic grasses), but between the apparently self-serving name -- the design team was led by Reed & Reed -- and the echoes of the recently removed public sculpture "Tracing the Fore" in downtown Portland, it seems somewhat ill-advised from a public perspective.
Still, the memorial works. It is across from the bridge at a pedestrian corner. It features a low, curved concrete form that matches the three pods on the bridge. And it features a ship-rigged pole for the American flag flanked by two more poles for the state of Maine and POW flags, respectively. (One particularly thoughtful detail is the inclusion of a merchant marine medallion on the pole base that matches the medallions of the five branches of the military on the base of the memorial itself.)
One of my favorite things about the bridge is that when you walk over it, the reed poles lean in from one side while the lamp posts reach in from the other to visually form a saber arch -- a military tradition used to salute a newly married couple. It seems to be the right blend of honor and respect for our veterans with the forward-looking ideas of family and commitment.
The landscaping around the memorial might seem overly spare now, but its simplicity will pay off in the long run. It will be easy and inexpensive to maintain. These were the problems, after all, with "Tracing the Fore," which was supposed to have grasses resembling waves but instead became choked with weeds.
I think the most important lesson of "Tracing the Fore" was that Portland had an excellent set of procedures and processes in place. The piece was selected with public input, and when it was found not to succeed as public art, it was removed following a collegial and rational process.
The $65 million Veterans Memorial Bridge, however, is a Maine Department of Transportation project through and through. Reed & Reed wasn't required to include the artistic embellishments; rather, it chose to do so. And that was one reason its design was selected. The project had a set schedule and budget regardless of the design.
The process went something like this: The Reed & Reed design was selected by MDOT from among three finalists. During the public process, an advocacy group spontaneously formed. These folks approached MDOT and asked to participate in the process.
Impressed by the group's professionals -- including architects, designers and former Portland Mayor Anne Pringle -- MDOT agreed to allow them a seat at the table if the city of Portland recognized the group (which it did).
Part of me loves this story. Able citizens cared enough to get involved and, to its credit, MDOT was flexible enough to include them.
But part of me despises the story. Rather than reaching out to the Maine Arts Commission for well-experienced public art process, a self-elected group of well-connected individuals created a process from scratch that could not have been guessed at by other members of the public who might have wanted to be involved.
The working group in this case was successful: They helped improve the project. The pedestrian and crash railings, the light fixtures, the benches, the open lane-design and the landscaping are all the better for their presence. The public aspects were even well-documented on the project's website (veteransmemorialbridge.org).
But if the message is that public involvement is desirable and beneficial, then what we need is predictable and improvable public process. I suggest MDOT establish the policy of looking to the arts commission to guide any similar efforts in the future.
I think public reaction to the Veterans Memorial Bridge will be mixed. Some folks will always complain when they see what they think is art, because they don't like what public art symbolizes.
But I think these public spaces are good and that we have gotten a handsome bridge, considering it was built to last 100 years. And the public art, of course, is a bonus that was in no way inevitable.
As architecture and a transportation node, the Veterans Memorial Bridge succeeds. Yet I don't see it becoming a bright spot in the ongoing conversation about public art.
Of course, the real judges will be the people who use the bridge. And there will be many for a long time to come.
Daniel Kany is an art historian and critic who writes weekly art reviews for the Maine Sunday Telegram. He lives in Cumberland.Tweet
Bicyclists, including, left to right, Phil Goff of Arlington, Mass., Carl Eppich of South Portland and Paul Niehoff of Portland pedal past reed poles, an artistic element of the Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Fore River.