So after months of debate, the Portland City Council finally voted earlier this week to remove the controversial outdoor sculpture “Tracing the Fore” from Boothby Square.

Its removal won’t be cheap — estimates have ranged from $8,000 to $9,000 — and that’s on top of the $135,000 the city paid to the artist for its installation.

While “Tracing the Fore” has received the most attention of late, it’s not the only public sculpture in Portland to divide artists and laymen alike. Rhoda Sherbell’s “American Baseball Family Group” at Hadlock Field immediately comes to mind.

Further, there is an ongoing debate as to what constitutes “sculpture” rather than “statuary,” and whether art should make an artistic statement or simply be pleasing to the eye. This isn’t just in Maine; it’s everywhere there is public art.

Other cities have tackled this debate with a simple but rather ingenious solution: temporary installations.

In my old stomping grounds of Sarasota, Fla., for example, the city has held a “Season of Sculpture” semiannually during tourist season for several years. Artists from throughout the world submit large-scale sculptures for the juried exhibition, and anywhere from a dozen to two dozen are chosen to be displayed along the downtown waterfront.

At the end of the exhibition several months later, the pieces are sold and removed, with the artist getting 70 percent of the commission and the city the remaining 30 percent. If they’re not sold, they’re simply removed.

The key word here is temporary. If the piece doesn’t work as art, if its location doesn’t mesh well with its surroundings, or if people simply hate it, it can be removed with — wait for it — no cost to the city.

The artists are responsible for the sculptures’ transportation, and a nonprofit organization takes care of the installation and removal of the works — as well as liability insurance while the pieces are on display — with the help of corporate sponsors and donors.

Think about how great this would be for Portland during the summer tourist season if it were to do something similar along the Back Cove or near the Eastern Promenade. It would add another element to the arts community, attract more tourists to the city, and give people another reason to enjoy the great Maine outdoors.

Plus, it would provide great exposure for local artists — one could conceivably restrict participants to Maine residents. And if the city decided it wanted to purchase one for a permanent installation, it would have the benefit of seeing it in a public setting first while giving the public plenty of time to react to the piece.

If there’s one lesson “Tracing the Fore” has taught us it’s that, despite the best intentions, sometimes a work of art simply doesn’t work. Art galleries and museums get this, which is why you rarely see an exhibit on permanent display. Not only does this allow them to replace a bad show with another one, it keeps the public coming back to see fresh material.

Just because art is displayed outdoors doesn’t mean it should be treated any differently.

Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or at:

[email protected]


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