A New York artist has been selected to create a piece of public art that will become the centerpiece in a redesigned Congress Square in downtown Portland.

Sarah Sze was awarded $75,000 to come up with a conceptual design in conjunction with the Philadelphia-based landscape and architectural firm WRT, which is redesigning the intersection of High, Congress and Free streets and abutting public spaces, including Congress Square Park. Sze was recommended by the Congress Square Public Art Commission on Monday and formally selected by the city’s Public Art Committee.

“The Portland Public Art Committee is looking forward to bringing this outstanding, internationally known artist to Portland,” art committee member Pandora LaCasse said in a written statement. “We were impressed with Sarah Sze’s point of view, her ability to analyze the site, her collaborative spirit, and of course her creativity and aesthetic.”

A preliminary design could be ready by April, the city said.

Sze said she was honored and excited to be chosen, and added that the city could not have gone wrong with any of the four finalists.

“What I really love about the project is that it grew out of the community wanting it and fighting for it,” the 47-year-old artist said.


Her selection is another step for a once-beleaguered open space that the City Council tried to sell to an out-of-state developer in 2013. Instead, it was preserved as public space through a citizen-initiated citywide referendum. Since then, the nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park has cleaned up the area, secured grants to add tables and chairs, and sponsored regular events in the nearly half-acre park.

“The space is already very alive and being used in interesting ways,” Sze said. “There’s a real potential for it to be a real magnet and gathering place for the community.”

At noon Tuesday, about a dozen people were relaxing in the revamped Congress Square Park, either eating lunch, people-watching, having conversations or feeding pigeons. The hardscaped plaza was dotted with brightly colored chairs, tables, benches and planters with flowers.

McKenzie Close, a 21-year-old who works near the park, said she is impressed with its transformation, describing it as more “community-oriented.” She hopes the public art will reflect the city, much like the Asylum club’s well-known graffiti wall before it was demolished.

“I’d like to see something colorful and vibrant that can help explain our city,” Close said.

Sze visited Portland on Aug. 8, along with three other internationally known finalists from New York; Denver, Colorado; and Sebastopol, California. Each artist was interviewed by the commission and gave a public presentation. At that time, Sze said she was drawn to Congress Square because of its potential, while also emphasizing that any public art in the square “has to be flexible.”


Friends of Congress Square Park President David LaCasse, who is married to Pandora LaCasse, said he was pleased that the committee chose Sze. After the four finalists made their presentations in Portland earlier this month, he spoke with Sze and was impressed.

“I think it’s wonderful,” he said. When asked what he hoped to see – or not see – LaCasse just shrugged. “We’ll see. The whole point was not to have something that is preconceived.”

In all, 97 artists responded to the city’s call for submissions. Several Maine artists responded, but art committee members said those applicants did not have the necessary experience with large outdoor pieces that must last up to 25 years.

Sze is originally from Boston and has ties to Maine. She has public art projects on display in New York City, including Central Park, and in Venice, Italy.

She was chosen based on her use of color, mixed materials and scale, expertise in both two- and three-dimensional work and her ability to combine intimacy and discovery, the city said in a news release.

City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said WRT is planning to visit Portland for three days this fall to begin its design work on the intersection. The city hopes to have a contract finalized with Sze by then and that she will be able to join the design team when it visits.


“I think everybody is really excited to have consensus on this and start the process and see what the designs are,” Grondin said.

The final overall cost of the project will not be known until the design is chosen.

The Public Art Committee has set aside $225,000 for the art project and plans to work with the Friends of Congress Square Park to raise additional funds. A funding source for implementing the broader changes to Congress Square, possibly including the reinstitution of two-way traffic on High and State streets, has not been identified.

The announcement comes as the city is working with another artist to finalize plans for creating a treelike sculpture out of ordinary street lights at Woodfords Corner and only weeks after a group of five local artists finished painting utility boxes throughout the city.

The city’s public art collection now consists of 56 permanently installed works of art.

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