Re: “Four artists competing to design piece for first roundabout” (June 17, Page B1):

Once again Portland’s Public Art Committee seems to be avoiding an opportunity to promote art that deals with public issues or local or national historical memory.

Although it is hard to tell from the pictures in Monday’s paper (the online version was somewhat clearer), the four proposals for the roundabout heading into the University of Southern Maine seem pretty ahistorical, not actually related to the immediate context and safe. Whether the artists actually know much about Portland, much less that particular part of Portland, is unclear. (Maybe they do). Maybe someone might remember whose land and home it was before the English invaded.

While other cities are engaged in debates over the meaning of memorials or ways to be more inclusive in remembering their past, or controversies over which people deserve commemoration, and some even decide to add statues of real historical women, there seems none of this willingness to engage in debate. The murals movement in Portland (and Gorham) fills the gap in many excellent ways, but it is not a substitute for public sculpture.

It’s a difficult, if not impossible, challenge to design art for a roundabout that will offer something of interest and not distract drivers, bicyclists or pedestrians. If the piece needs to be safe and not distracting, maybe it should just be a tree. Put lights on it in winter.

If, however, the object is to represent education and perhaps also a more diverse city and university, well, maybe that art should include more people. (One proposal appears to include a figure. Maybe a more complete illustration would help.) Or it could cause controversy. You can just play it safe, but what will people learn from the roundabout?

Eileen Eagan


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