PORTLAND — After reviewing 17 artists’ ideas for benches along the new Bayside Trail, the Portland Public Art Committee has decided they’re all too, well, bench-like.

“Art should be something you feel passion for,” said committee Chairman Jack Soley. “At the end of the day, we felt most of the entries were simply too pedestrian, and we’re not looking for that. We could buy benches from a catalog if that’s what we were looking for.”

The committee voted Wednesday not to award a contract for the three to five benches that are planned along the trail for walkers, joggers and cyclists.

Its Bayside Trail Seating Subcommittee will now meet to refine its request for proposals, or decide instead to solicit artists’ qualifications and then work directly with a selected group of artists.

Soley said the committee shares the blame for the process’s lack of success.

“The way the (request for proposals) was worded focused the artists’ energies on the bench, that they needed to be used and comfortable, but also have to be exciting and artistic,” Soley said. “We are going to de-emphasize the utility and try to direct artists to do what they do best — create artistry.”

Another committee member, Peggy Greenhut Golden, said she hopes the new process will energize artists to push the boundaries.

“A lot of them are aesthetically appealing,” she said of the designs that were submitted, “but we are looking for things that aren’t just aesthetically appealing, but that wow the public and make a real statement about not just being a bench but being a piece of art.”

The designs were shown in the Portland Public Library for several weeks and received positive feedback from the public, Soley said.

However, Golden said, choosing public art isn’t a popularity contest.

The seating subcommittee selected four finalists, and interviewed each. Two received majority recommendations from the subcommittee, but even those recommendations were lukewarm. The two artists will be invited to submit new proposals, Soley said.

Committee members hope that reopening the process will lead many more artists to submit ideas. Soley said the committee heard from some artists who were unaware of the request for proposals or the Aug. 31 deadline for submissions.

Soley acknowledged that seeking public art with utility adds complexity to an already challenging process. It’s hard to make something visually stunning and at the same time fitting for a specific need.

The Public Art Committee has designated $48,000 for the bench project — $42,500 for construction and the rest for administering the process.

Starting the process over will delay installation of the benches, which was tentatively scheduled to start in July 2011.

“The bottom line was, we just did not want to compromise,” Soley said. “We want to spend money on benches we’re going to be proud of, now and 20 years down the road.” 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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