An endangered work of public art called “Oasis” is safe, at least for now.
The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks had written to Baltimore’s Public Art Commission asking panel members to consider “deaccessioning” the tile artwork, which is embedded in the Druid Hill pool, so it could be removed. The request was on the agenda of the commission’s monthly meeting yesterday.
The parks department plans to reconstruct the pool and pool house at a cost of $6.8 million. Initially, the agency didn’t intend to keep the artwork, which consists of a series of tiles forming a geometrical pattern in the pool. Swimmers can see the artwork through the water, which makes it appear to be a variety of shades of blue.
The unusual aquatic artwork was created by Pat Alexander, a Baltimore resident who has been an arts pioneer in Maryland.
Alexander was the only woman, and one of the few local artists, to be hired to create a One Percent for Art piece for the below-ground portion of Baltimore’s Metro system. (Mary Ann Mears has a work at the Owings Mills station.)
Alexander’s 1979 ceramic mosaic, entitled “Geometro,” can be found at the Lexington Market station, where colorful tiles in a geometrical pattern are visible on the lower platform. It’s one of the few works of art in the Baltimore Metro system that people can see from inside the subway cars, and it helps riders figure out what station they’re in when the announcement system is down.
“Oasis” was also created as a One Percent for Art piece, from 1987 to 1989. The tiled work is designed to follow and accentuate the steps that bathers use to get in the water at the shallow end of the pool.
Over the years, some of the tiles have shifted and lost grout that kept them in place. Skateboarders have also damaged them when they get in after the pool is emptied out for the winter.
The artwork was becoming known as a safety hazard. There have been complaints of people cutting their feet on sharp tile edges.
Separately, as part of the pool reconstruction, the parks department was considering eliminating the steps and replacing them with a gradually sloping underwater ramp that provides barrier-free access to the pool.
Word got out that the parks department was contemplating removing Alexander’s art work when it rebuilds the pool starting next year. Renderings of the renovated pool didn’t show the tiles at all. Fans of Alexander’s work mounted a letter-writing and emailing campaign to save “Oasis” — and it had an effect.
“Judging by the letters I received, your fans didn’t want to have it removed,” arts commission chairman Elford Jackson told the artist, who attended yesterday’s meeting.
Ryan Patterson, public arts administrator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, told panel members yesterday that the public outcry to save Alexander’s work prompted city officials over the last two weeks to rethink their strategy.
Patterson said city officials have come up with some other options to explore, including resetting the tiles and switching to a non-slip tile.
As a result, he said, the panel would not be asked to consider deaccessioning the tiles at its meeting.
Over the last two weeks, “we have looked at this and I think we have more options on the table than deaccessioning,” Patterson said. “What we found when we went to look at this is that it is in relatively good shape. The safety hazard posed by the tiles is the reason they proposed removing the artwork. We were able to meet with the acting director of the parks department and we had a productive discussion.”
So for now, he said, “the deaccession request is on pause…We’re open to a wider range of possibilities.”
Part of the change in thinking, Patterson said, is that the parks planners were told they could use up to one percent of the $6.8 million cost of the pool reconstruction to repair the city-owned art that is already there, rather than find another way to pay for repairs. That comes out to $68,000.
Will Andersen, a design planner with the parks department, said he believes a better solution can be found than removing the work of art. “I see a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Alexander, who sat next to Andersen at the meeting, said she was relieved to hear that her work wouldn’t be destroyed. She said she would be willing to work with the city’s designers to find a way to incorporate her piece into the renovated pool.
“I was hot when I first heard about this,” the artist told the board. “I said, What?…Deaccessioning in this case means destroying and adding to a landfill, which I think would be horrifying.”
Now, she said, “I’m really happy that we are talking…I’m thrilled.”
At the end of the meeting, the panel voted unanimously to use the One Percent for Art fees for the pool reconstruction to hire Alexander to work with the city’s designers, including GWWO Architects, to come up with a new strategy. They said that’s preferable to destroying Alexander’s work and seeking a new round of One Percent for Art proposals.
“I’m glad she is willing to be flexible,” said Jackson. “We have the original artist, so we might as well take advantage of it.”
As a result, “Oasis” will remain in place at least through 2017. The pool has already been filled with water in preparation for the summer swimming season, which begins in a few weeks. The city’s construction timetable calls for the pool to close for reconstruction in 2018 and reopen in 2019.