Seeing his “Madre Luz” sculpture in shambles last month was difficult for artist Pablo Machioli. The day after Mayor Catherine Pugh had Baltimore’s controversial Confederate monuments removed, activists placed his work depicting a pregnant black woman, child on her back and fist raised, atop the empty base in the Wyman Park Dell that had held statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
One day later, someone pushed it over, destroying it. Activists patched the sculpture back together, but city work crews discarded it in a heap in Druid Hill Park.
“The action was taking it and dumping it like a piece of trash, basically,” Machioli said in his Station North studio last Friday.
Weeks after the fallout from the monuments, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts launched its “Monumental Sites” online portal to solicit ideas for what to place atop the four empty bases in the Wyman Park Dell, Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon and on University Parkway.
Everyone, non-artists included, is invited to submit a proposal of fewer than 500 words suggesting artwork, temporary or permanent, to place at each site. Criteria to be addressed include historical context of the site, the timeframe for installation, ease of implementation and budget.
“The city, BOPA, personally – we had people reaching out with offers of permanent replacements immediately,” said Ryan Patterson, public art administrator for BOPA on a phone call this week. “We had artists from out of town sending proposals for a variety of different sculptures.”
Suggestions include statues of Baltimore-born black Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall or Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman. Others had utility on the mind. Patterson said one Maryland Institute College of Art professor asked for permission to use the sites as temporary exhibition spaces for her sculpture students.
But artists are wary about the fact that BOPA, a nonprofit that serves as the city’s official arts council, is handling the process. For one, most artists — particularly those who produce public art — don’t begin their creative process by adhering to a formula or trying to fulfill criteria in a proposal, said Machioli.
Sheila Gaskins, an artist and an organizer of the “Artpartheid” talk series, also criticizes the fact that BOPA launched its portal without first holding any community meetings.
“They’ve got the horse before the cart,” she said.
“You cannot know until you get the first meeting with the people,” added Machioli, seated beside Gaskins in his studio. “You can guess things, but in my opinion, the way I would try to figure it out is first, again, in a meeting, invite people to get together to talk about [it].”
Artpartheid and other organizations have planned four “imagining” meetings this month and next to do just that. A release provided by Gaskins said the group “will examine the space where the monuments stood” and “gather information about the sites” to determine what to place atop each base.
Patterson thinks the meetings are a great idea and plans to attend one or several.
“Absolutely, I’m very excited that Artpartheid and some other community groups are doing self-organized conversations,” he said. “I don’t see [the application process] in conflict or in spite of those conversations.”
Patterson said Wednesday that the portal wasn’t meant to be an entry point to any formal process to replace the old statues. In fact, it’s more aimed at “interim,” or temporary, installations than anything permanent. “We’re not turning anything away,” he said, though he also noted the city could decide not to use any of the ideas, something BOPA noted on its “Monumental Sites” page.
Any process to install a permanent statue would be more formal than the portal’s submission page, he said. If that time comes, the city will put out an actual call for entries with contingent funding and resources.
Another equally important reason for starting the portal, Patterson said, is to archive the ideas being floated for repurposing the statue bases. Rather than rely on Facebook comments (incidentally, Baltimore Fishbowl saw plenty of ideas published on our FB page) or emails, BOPA wants to maintain a centralized collection pool.
Working with the eight-member Special Commission to Review Baltimore’s Public Confederate Monuments, created by former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2015, Patterson said he benefitted from poring through archived responses from city residents about the Confederate monuments when they went up.
“What was amazing was finding the editorials and the letters to The Sun from as early as the late 1800s and the early 1900s, of people commenting about their ideas on putting up these types of monuments in the city,” he said.
Regardless of BOPA’s intentions, many neighborhood residents, artists, and activists remain suspicious about the process being initiated by a city institution. Staff from the mayor’s office heard about the distrust firsthand when Mayor Catherine Pugh convened her Safe Art Spaces Task Force to craft a strategy for safely and affordably housing Baltimore’s sprawling artist community. Pugh formed the task force after the city evicted dozens of artists living in the out-of-code Bell Foundry building, leaving many displaced or homeless.
As musician and task force member Dan Deacon said at a public meeting, “it’s very hard for people to reach out for help when they’re afraid that the hand that feeds them is going to hurt them.”
Gaskins said she acknowledges that BOPA’s portal is partly “about gleaning wonderful ideas,” but suspects officials “already know what they’re gonna put up.”
“I think whoever’s funding something is going to have a clear say about what eventually happens,” she said.
“They already have the structure,” said Machioli. “What we need to do is to show them another way to see things. Because if we want to be peaceful and we want to work together, we cannot divide and separate.”
Patterson said he acknowledges the concerns. Any process to install public art on city property, however, needs to go through the appropriate channels, he said. “Putting art in public is a public process, but if it’s on the city’s property, then it’s going to include an institution.”
That doesn’t preclude obtaining feedback from residents of the neighborhoods who will regularly see the artwork. “It doesn’t have to be opposed to the community that it serves,” he said.
Machioli and Gaskins agreed that ideally, the artwork installed at each site will speak to Baltimore’s general populace, particularly younger generations, rather than people with money or those in power. Gaskins said it should be a “gift back to the city” and involve people of color.
Each work should be inclusive enough to appeal even to those who objected to the Confederate monuments being torn down in August, Machioli suggested: “Make it so beautiful that the people who hate these actions want to come hang out and say, ‘what a nice spot.’”
Artpartheid’s first “imagining” meeting is scheduled for Sept. 23, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Arch Social Club at 2624 North Avenue. Two others are scheduled for Oct. 1, from 2 to 6 p.m. at The Living Well at 235 Holliday Street; and Oct. 6, from 6 to 9 p.m. at WombWorks at 3123 Walbrook Avenue. Artpartheid is planning a fourth meeting at the 2640 Space on St. Paul Street (date to be determined).
This story has been corrected to clarify that BOPA is nonprofit that serves as the city’s arts council, rather than a city agency.