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Why We Don’t Need Public Art

It’s an article of faith among art organizations that public art is unquestionably a good thing. The fact is, most public art is far from a good thing; most of it is plain awful.

Making art good enough to hold its own in a pubic space is special skill, and most artists, even very good artists, can’t do it. Even if they could, most committees, and Portland’s is no exception, can’t make a decision for quality art, even if they were offered it. Horses, camels.

For proof, one need look no farther than  around the town. There is, as far as I know, no good public art anywhere in the city, with the  possible exception of some stones arranged on the Waynefleet campus. The Mierle Ukeles piece at MECA is a obvious throw-together. The recent additions are at best banal and at worst silly. There is some humor value in the accidentally autoerotic (at least when viewed from the west) statue of the fireman in front of the firehouse on Congress Street, but otherwise there is little to lift one's spirits.

The Portland public art committee has good people on it, but it the whole idea of a committee selection process is flawed.  Percent for art has left bad piece after bad piece around the state, all chosen by committees, most of whom were unfamiliar with art at all. Go look, you’ll see what I mean. With the exception of a couple of pieces by Roger Majorowicz, who has a flair for making art that is both interesting and accessible, most are prime examples of what James Wines called ‘plop art,’ or the ‘turd in the plaza’ effect.

Good artists can’t always make art for public spaces. There’s an Isamu Noguchi in lower Manhattan that just shouldn't be where it is. For a while there was a David Smith, a great sculptor by any measure, at Lincoln Center and it looked awful. Mark di Suvero, who depends on huge scale for much of his work, can’t always get it right. Anyone who saw the Richard Serra ‘Tilted Arc’ before it was removed from the plaza it occupied could see it was wrong for that spot. During that same period there was another Serra in park-like area near the Holland Tunnel that was great. His big piece outside the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh is one of the best public sculptures I’ve seen anywhere.

It’s best to get a good one that works where it is. Good art isn’t  always popular, but over time it grows on the passers-by. The big Picasso horse in Chicago was like that. After a few years it was embraced by the community. I’m no great fan of Picasso, but that is a great sculpture.

Mediocre or poorly-sited work has the opposite effect. It may generate a little early opposition, but over time it just looks like nothing. It’s better to have nothing than to have something that looks like nothing. These are the only art works some people will usually see in their lives, and to have it be something pallid is a great shame.

 Here are a few good public art pieces in Maine, in no particular order:

 Sculptures by Richard Serra and Sol Lewitt at Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville

Two pieces by Roger Majorowicz, one in downtown Waterville and another at a school in Gardiner.

 I can’t think of any more.

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