May 7, 2010

Art stirs passions (that's a good thing)

Daniel Kany

(This story was originally published November 22nd, 2009)


"Good public artists do not condescend; they rise to the challenge of creating work that appeals to the full range of stakeholders."

– Michael Sweney, Washington state public arts administrator

I had just moved to New York City when the controversy surrounding Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" in front of a federal building in Lower Manhattan came to a full boil. In March 1989, by force of a court order, the huge sculpture was removed.

When I went to say goodbye to it, however, I saw why the people who worked in the building hated it so much: it slashed the plaza space with an almost dark violence. I had admired it as a sculpture but had never considered it from the architectural point of view of the people who crossed that plaza every day.

The Serra controversy was a testament to the passion public art can stir. Public art can be powerful: think of the Statue of Liberty, Michelangelo's David, the Lincoln Memorial, the Arc of Triumph or even the Eiffel Tower.

More recently, big-time public art has had a contemporary cast. I am thinking of Jeff Koons' flowering "Puppy" at the Guggenheim Bilbao or Anish Kapoor's silver bean "Cloud Gate" in Chicago and so on.

Portland, however, is a city with a handsome but staid 19th-century flavor. Our brick and cobblestones do not necessarily call out for edgy complexity.

But in a city and state that take art as seriously as we do, it is an important question to ask: What role do we want public art to play in Portland, Maine?

We have several audiences to respect: the Mainers for whom Portland is their leading city; the tourists we hope to charm; and the locals who live and work here.

My favorite work in Portland is Aaron Stephan's "Lift" – a 20-foot-tall table set with chairs at the University of South Portland. The sculpture is inside of a building but sited to be seen from the street. It is playful, funny and exciting.

I also love Pandora LaCasse's holiday lights that go up seasonally. Seriously – who doesn't?

An important thing to keep in mind is that we can dislike some individual pieces and still strongly support the idea of public art. I think "Tracing the Fore" is a horrible failure, but I get why it was selected and accepted.

More difficult for me is New York sculptor Rhoda Sherbell's "American Baseball Family Group" at Hadlock Field. I love taking my boys to see the Sea Dogs, and we always stop to have our picture taken with Slugger – the glossy and kitschy poster-dog of fun. In contrast, the family group piece is an ugly and condescending portrait of the people of Portland, and it's also at odds with the city's public art ordinance because of its display of logos.

Part of the offense by a "gift" like the bronze family is the responsibility foisted on the city. Simply owning art is expensive. A painful reminder of that fact is illustrated by the sorry state of the Pullen Fountain on Federal Street and the sundial bench on Baxter Boulevard. Our excellent Public Art Committee is addressing these and other issues, but it has its hands full, and these are lean times.

Personally, I think we should have an exhibition of public sculptures every summer around the Back Cove. It would give Maine artists the chance to show – and maybe sell – their works in a setting highly visible to the public.

A portion of any sale from the show could help fund an annual acquisition of one of the pieces. The public could even make the choice.

Portland has some very good art that fits our public image as a quaint old New England town. But we will continue to need and want new public art. We should dare to challenge ourselves.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at

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