June 25, 2013

Two benches, $42,500? Portland sits this one out

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – A three-year-old plan to install artist-designed benches on the city's Bayside Trail has been halted because the winning bidder has significantly raised the price.

click image to enlarge

The illustration by Skye Design Studio Ltd. shows its proposal for a bench alongside the Bayside Trail in Portland.

Courtesy Skye Design Studio Ltd.

Now, Portland's Public Art Committee must decide whether to request new bids – for the third time – or spend the allotted $42,500 on another kind of art project.

"It's really time to go back to the drawing board and decide how we want to invest this money," said City Councilor David Marshall, who serves on the Public Art Committee.

The saga of the "sit-able sculptures" began in 2010, when the committee issued a request for proposals but never picked a winner because all 17 submissions were too, well, bench-like.

The committee then issued a request for qualifications, which produced the winning submission from Skye Design Studio of Washington, D.C., despite objections from people who said only Maine artists should be chosen.

The City Council approved the project a year ago. The contract called for Skye Design Studio to deliver three benches, about 15 feet long, made of wood and steel, with two curved and one that would undulate like a wave.

But Skye Design Studio ran into trouble when the company that was supposed to fabricate the benches was bought by a Dutch company, and the price of the work increased significantly, said Lin Lisberger, chair of the Public Art Committee.

Instead of delivering three benches for $42,500, Skye Design Studio offered to supply the city with two benches for the same price. The Public Art Committee voted last week to reject the offer.

"Basically, we didn't feel like this was the commitment we had made," Lisberger said.

Andrew Cocke, owner of Skye Design Studio, did not respond to a phone message Monday.

The committee will meet July 17 to discuss what to do next. Lisberger said the group seems to support the idea of keeping the money and using it to help fund a "significant" project elsewhere in the city. By holding onto the $42,500, the committee would have a total of $150,000 to spend.

The Public Art Committee typically has an annual budget of $50,000 to $60,000. By ordinance, it receives funding that amounts to 0.5 percent of the city's annual capital improvement budget.

Lisberger said Congress Square Plaza has emerged as a leading candidate for a public art project. She said there is room for public art on the site even if the city decides to sell a portion of it to the owner of the former Eastland Park Hotel, which wants to add an events center.

She said Congress Square Plaza is an appealing site because it's in the center of the city's arts district.

Although $42,500 seems like a lot of money to spend on benches, it's really an "incredibly tight budget" for creating custom-made pieces, said Aaron Stephan, a Portland artist who was one of three finalists for the bench project. Stephan said he's not upset that the winning bidder did not deliver as promised.

"Things happen," he said.

The Public Art Committee wants to avoid another blunder like "Tracing the Fore." The landscape piece in Boothby Square, which used stainless steel and fescue grass, was difficult to maintain, became unsightly and was removed in 2011 in response to many complaints.

Terry DeWan, a longtime member of the committee, said the group will take its time to figure out its next step.

"Sometimes, the worst thing to do is to rush into something," he said. "No one is going to accuse us of rushing into anything on this project."

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com 

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