What is public art?

And can it be by someone from away?
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  September 29, 2010

Life is short; art is forever. At least until someone trips on it.

The mounting controversy surrounding the fate of "Tracing the Fore," the four-year old steel-and-grass sculpture in the middle of Fore Street's Boothby Square, has invigorated city-wide dialogue about the function and mutability of municipal art. Originally commissioned by the Portland Public Art Committee to connect the commercial Fore Street to its historic shoreline roots, the installation — at least in its current state — appears doomed. More than a dozen local businesses have signed a petition to remove the installation, citing "danger" (though there have been no cases of injury) and general unsightliness.

Resolution is forthcoming: the Portland Public Art Committee plans to meet October 13 with the artist, Shauna Gillies-Smith, to discuss the modification or possible dismantling of the structure. The options include changing the grass (from fescue to something else that might grow better), changing the topsoil, moving the piece, or covering it up entirely, though all modifications apart from removal would have to be approved by the artist.

Gillies-Smith operates a landscape architecture firm in Somerville, Massachusetts, and whose public and private art pieces range in size and scale from a recycled-wood green roof in Natick to a waterfront neighborhood in Dubai, will not be in town for the follow-on City Hall meeting October 20, at which the piece's fate will be formally decided.

Perhaps part of the backlash against the piece and its creator stems from Maine's tenuous relationship with out-of-state artists. Both the committee and Gillies-Smith have been targets of considerable criticism, much of it based on the premise of keeping things in-state. Taste in municipal art aside, Portlanders would have probably given "Tracing the Fore" a lot more sympathy and patience (the piece hasn't actually grown as originally planned) if Gillies-Smith were local.

"We do struggle with that issue all the time," says Jack Soley, chairman of the PPAC. "Our strong preference is to hire a Maine artist."

Gillies-Smith was awarded the commission after her proposal won the PPAC's contest, though the committee invited applications frmo a vast range of local artists from the Maine Arts Commission. She has since removed mention of the project from her online resume.

"Whenever we think there's an imperative (to hire a local artist), we will," says Soley. "It takes a lot of extra energy for us to go out and solicit Maine artists, but ultimately we have to get the best work. If it's not a Maine artist, it's disappointing to us, but that's the reality."

A similar criticism arose in 2008 when the PPAC commissioned MECA graduate Vivian Beer for a project in Winslow Park, near Baxter Boulevard. Though her education and much of her work had been in-state, the committee was heavily criticized for giving money to an out-of-state artist. While any project that increases public opinion about art may appear worthwhile, this issue is pretty loaded, and the mounting divisiveness on this particular issue may be masking a classic strain of anti-intellectualism.

Undeterred, Soley and the PPAC have used a similar formula to fund the Portland Art Benches Project, whose proposals are contained in a competitive exhibition in the Lewis Gallery of the Portland Public Library through September 30; the winner will be commissioned to install their works along the Bayside Trail.

"Public art is by its very nature controversial," Soley says. "We don't always invite the level of controversy that we have witnessed with Tracing the Fore, but that is part of the package anytime you commission a piece of art. We accept that and understand."

Nicholas Schroeder can be reached atnschroeder@phx.com.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Portland Public Library, Portland Public Library, public art,  More more >
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