PORTLAND — What do Portland and Mexico City have in common? A commitment to public art.

When I visited Mexico City a few years ago, I was struck by the variety of public art on display in parks, on plazas, and along the streets, especially on Mexico City’s grand boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma.

As we rode along in our tour bus, I noticed a variety of unconventional benches, clearly designed by individual artists. Our guide explained that they were part of a competition in 2007 that was intended to be a temporary two-year installation of “art benches.”

Observing them in use as we drove along, it was clear that the Mexican public would not relinquish their art benches after any temporary period!

People of all ages and social status were arrayed on a variety of benches, from whimsical, to restful, to group-focused, etc. It made me smile to see people so naturally interacting with a functional work of art!

When I got back home, I mentioned it to a member of the Public Art Committee and was asked to do a brief presentation on what I had seen. The committee loved the concept of functional public art and established a commissioning panel to develop a competition for placement of public seating on the Bayside Trail.

After many months of work in soliciting and reviewing proposals, the panel was disappointed that it did not reach a strong consensus on any bench proposal submitted. The Public Art Committee came to the same conclusion.

But this does not mean that the submissions were not appreciated or that the concept does not have merit.

So what is public art? Why does Portland have a commitment to public art? Simply put, public art is art in many forms, placed in a public setting. Individually and collectively, public art helps define and enhance a space and enriches a community and its image.

More than 10 years ago, the City Council agreed that public art should join parks, trails, historic architecture and other amenities in defining the civic values and spirit of Portland.

Public art can be clearly representational, like the well-loved lobsterman statue across from the Nickelodeon. It can be abstract, like the rust-patinaed steel sculpture, “Michael,” near One City Center.

It can honor a public figure, like the statue of Thomas Brackett Reed on the Western Prom. Or it can be functional, like the Mexico City art benches and those proposed for the Bayside Trail. Public art can be funded either by public or private monies, or a combination of both.

Portland has established a system for developing its Public Art Collection, with a public process and standards for the works to be included in its collection.

When investing public funds or accepting a private donation for placement in a city-owned space, it is important to assure that each piece meets the established standards and is durable.

But this does not assure that every piece will be loved by every member of the public.

The point, from my perspective, is to expose people to art in their daily lives.

For example, I remember visiting “the other Portland” in Oregon in the early 1990s.

As a tourist, I was surprised to encounter bronze sculptures of beavers on a sidewalk

My eyes opened, I began looking for other works of art during my walks. As a I recall, one was a large bronze elk statue, which a plaque noted was reviled by the public in the Victorian era when it was installed. It is now an iconic image in that city.

And the public art I encountered there really affected my impression of the city. In the intervening years since my visit, Portland, Ore., has built a collection of more than 100 pieces of public art and has a national reputation as a vibrant city that celebrates its many community assets — just like its namesake in Maine!

So, despite the criticism of some, it’s worth trying again to get art benches that people will either embrace immediately, as great functional public art, or come to love over time.


– Special to the Press Herald