7 times Portland public art has made the news for reasons other than being pretty

News that some Portland city councilors and their constituents were lukewarm, at best, about a street lamp sculpture being proposed for Woodfords Corner makes me think about the times when pieces in the city’s fairly extensive public art collection have grabbed headlines for reasons other than just being pretty.

The Portland Press Herald reported Monday night that the council voted 6-3 to set aside $25,000 to commission local artist Aaron Stephan to design and build the “cluster of lights” sculpture on a plaza near the Odd Fellows Hall on Forest Avenue.

City councilor Nick Mavodones was among those who were “meh” about the whole thing.

“It seems clear that many in the community are not all that enthused about this cluster of lights,” he said, according to the Press Herald, which had previously published photos of Stephan’s street-light sculptures elsewhere in the state and country.

While the financial stakes aren’t nearly as high and it’s premature to judge this piece before it’s been fully designed, the initial public response brings to mind “Tracing the Fore,” a steel-and-grass sculpture the city bought for $135,000 in 2006 and then sold for $100 five years later, after nearby Fore Street property owners complained exhaustively about how ugly they thought it was.

Determining the quality of art is, by nature, subjective, and the majority of the council agreed it’s worth it to give Stephan, a local artist with a growing profile, the benefit of the doubt.

The 59 pieces in the city’s public art collection are generally uncontroversial, if not cherished parts of the urban landscape, like the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow statue featured in the video below.

Can you imagine Portland without the Our Lady of Victories statue in Monument Square? Well, that took 20 years and two public referendums in the 19th century to decide whether to build it and, if so, where.

Counting the “Tracing the Fore” story as No. 1 on my list, here are six more — for a total of seven — recent instances of public art making headlines for reasons other than being pretty.

(To be clear, these aren’t all cases of controversy over whether the art is any good or not, nor is this to suggest that the only value of art is to be “pretty.” Most of these are cases in which the quality of the art wasn’t in question, and even if it was, some art is meant to be more thought-provoking or jarring than aesthetically pleasing. Anyway, I digress…)

George Cleeve

(BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

(BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

The Portland City Council in 2002 turned away an offer to donate a statue of city founder George Cleeve on the grounds that he may have been a slave-owner, but local businessman and Cleeve descendant Phineas Sprague stepped in and welcomed the sculpture on his Fore Street property.

The baseball family

(Courtesy city of Portland)

(Courtesy city of Portland)

Portland Sea Dogs owner Dan Burke sought to place a statue of a family of baseball fans on the sidewalk heading into Hadlock Field in 2006. The City Council approved the statue over the objections of the Public Art Committee, which argued that the family members didn’t represent the city’s diversity, and complained about the placement of a private company’s logo — that of the Sea Dogs — on the statue.

The vandalized numeral

"SEVEN" by Robert Indiana (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

“SEVEN” by Robert Indiana (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

In January 2015, a band of vandals defaced the eight-foot-tall, rust-colored number 7 built by famed sculptor Robert Indiana and placed outside the Portland Museum of Art.

The museum captured surveillance camera footage of a group of men kicking the sculpture and a woman writing what turned out to be a swear word on it.

The stolen porcupine

The steel animal sculptures on the Portland International Jetport campus didn’t face controversy like the baseball and George Cleeve statues. In fact, they were apparently well-liked enough that somebody stole one of them.

Police are still looking for the person who swiped the steel-and-nails porcupine, but in the meantime, a donor has emerged with a new porcupine sculpture to replace them in the menagerie. And the lost porcupine has maintained a strong, however satirical, social media presence.

The Langlais bears

(Courtesy of Portland Public Art Committee)

(Courtesy of Portland Public Art Committee)

When Colby College and the Kohler Foundation sought to offload a number of pieces in their massive collection of wooden sculptures by famed artist Bernard Langlais, Portland was psyched to acquire some in 2013.

The late Langlais’ work is cherished, and taking ownership over some of these animal carvings seemed like a no-brainer.

The only trouble was, the city wasn’t sure where to put them. In particular, a 10-foot-tall standing bear and pair of seven-foot-tall sitting bears were hard to find space for — they both needed to be indoors as part of their maintenance plans.

City officials ultimately found room for the prized pieces at the Portland International Jetport and Ocean Gateway Terminal.

Coming soon: Congress Square art

The former Bethlehem Steel plant was redeveloped by WRT into the SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus. (Courtesy city of Portland, WRT)

The former Bethlehem Steel plant was redeveloped by WRT into the SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus. (Courtesy city of Portland, WRT)

In what may be the most heavily scrutinized art acquisition the city has seen in a long time, Portland is currently sifting through proposals to create a new public art fixture for Congress Square.

This is part of a very ambitious potential overhaul of the 14,500-square-foot public space — as well as the nearby intersection — that just a few years ago was proposed to be sold to private hoteliers for development as a conference center.

Now the city is bringing on Philadelphia-based urban design team WRT to reimagine the high-profile square, and whichever artist they choose will play a central role in building art to fit into that new park.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.