Photo by Baltimore Gal

Will renovation claim the Male/Female sculpture in front of Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station?

The question arose last week when Amtrak and its development partners shared their latest plans for a nearly-$500 million revitalization of the area around the historic train station, and the drawings didn’t show the 52-foot-tall sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky that’s been on the entrance plaza since 2004.

The forum was an hour-long briefing organized by the Greater Baltimore Committee. The subject was brought up by GBC President and CEO Donald Fry, who was relaying questions from the audience.

There’s “one question that is always a topic of discussion when we think about Penn Station,” Fry said. “What is the future in the overall plans for the Man/Woman statue that is in front of the building?”

It was the last question of the day after Amtrak and its partners had presented many other aspects of the revitalization plan, which includes modernizing the 1911 train station and building a new “north concourse” on the opposite side of the railroad tracks. One of the renderings showed the area in front of the station without Borofsky’s sculpture in place.

Rendering courtesy of Beatty Development.

“Aye yi yi yi yi,” said Bill Struever, CEO of Cross Street Partners, which is part of a team known as Penn Station Partners that has a master development agreement with Amtrak to revitalize up to seven parcels around the midtown train terminal.

“I don’t know,” Struever said. “That’s above…Actually, it’s grown on me coming down [Interstate] 83. I’m a Hudson Valley School church-painter guy, not a modernist guy, but it’s grown on me. We have to think of the diplomatic, graceful way to get everybody’s input and I don’t know whether we’re going to do a vote or what, but it’s definitely… I wouldn’t dare opine on that…”

Tim Pula, vice president of community development for Beatty Development Group, another member of Penn Station Partners, took it from there. He said people shouldn’t read anything into the fact that the sculpture isn’t shown on a rendering.

“Frankly, if you look at some of our drawings, you’ll see it in there,” Pula said. “If you look at others, it’s not. Sometimes it’s just because we’re trying to give the best view, so for artistic purposes you move it out of the view.”

Pula said the answer to Fry’s question is that the future of Borofsky’s sculpture is “to be determined.”

He said the team knows that people are wondering about the sculpture, but Penn Station Partners has not addressed it yet.

“It is an issue that’s on the list of things that we need to discuss with BOPA [the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts] and with the larger community,” he said. “We haven’t started that yet. It’s probably something that we start digging into in the next four to six months.”

The sculpture was a gift to the city from the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City, a private group founded in 1899. With a cost of $750,000, it’s one of the most expensive works of art ever donated to the city.

The sculpture rises on a city-owned plaza in front of the train station. That means Penn Station Partners and Amtrak do not have final say in what happens to it, although they can make suggestions.

Chris Seiler, director of marketing and communications for Beatty Development Group, said team members are aware that the sculpture’s fate is not solely up to them.

“The plaza is technically the roof of the garage” that’s just south of the train station, Seiler said in an email message. “The garage is owned by the City of Baltimore through the Parking Authority of Baltimore. They control the plaza. Penn Station Partners is developing a concept design to reflect how we ultimately would like to reconfigure the plaza. That concept will need to be vetted and approved by the parking authority.”

Also involved is BOPA, the quasi-public agency that maintains an inventory of city-owned art. It has an advisory role in determining whether city-owned works of art can be moved or “deaccessioned.” It did little to prevent the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain several years ago, or any number of other pieces that have disappeared or deteriorated over the years.

Made of 10 tons of burnished aluminum and dedicated on June 4, 2004, Borofsky’s sculpture consists of two figures, like oversized cut-out dolls, intersecting at a 90-degree angle. From one direction, it appears to be a male form. From another direction, it’s a female form. There are three-quarter views that show the silhouettes coming together – part man, part woman. At the center is a beating heart, illuminated with an LED light that changes from cobalt blue to fuchsia in half a minute.

Few people seem to know the piece’s proper name. Many take the safe route and call it Man Woman. Smaller versions exist in Japan and Germany, adding to the confusion.

Borofsky has said the male and female forms represent two energies that come together to create a greater force. He has written that the composition depicts “the most archetypal and obvious pairing of all – male and female – a fusion which not only creates life, but also has the potential to bring each of us into balance – thereby creating a feeling of wholeness and peace in our everyday lives.”

Since its installation, the sculpture has elicited a wide range of reactions, often playing off the gender-bending aspect or the simplicity of the forms.

Writer Michael Anthony Farley called it Baltimore’s “kinkiest artwork.” Columnist Dan Rodricks wrote that it looks like Gort the robot from “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Cartoonist Bill Griffith, author of the Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, featured it as part of Zippy’s travels shortly after it was dedicated. In a 2004 interview, Griffith called the sculpture “intriguing and compelling but also a little kitschy” and “high art and low art at the same time.” He said he was attracted to its provocative, “in your face” nature and message that people are full of contradictions, concluding that “you can’t not react to it.”

Borofsky’s creation has its share of haters, who say they just don’t like it and don’t think it’s a good symbol for the city. Others say they don’t mind the sculpture as an object but don’t like that it’s in front of the Beaux-Arts train station. They don’t like its colossal scale or the juxtaposition of new and old.

Still others confess that Borofsky’s work has grown on them with repeated viewings. They say it’s in an appropriate location to greet travelers coming to and from the city’s main train terminal. They aren’t turned off by the part man, part woman theme. They like the way it lights up at night. They say its colossal scale may be less of an issue if more large buildings rise around the train station, as called for in the new master plan. They say Baltimore is fortunate to have a Borofsky to go along with its Mark di Suvero and its Henry Moore.

And then there are legal questions. If it were moved, would the city be violating the terms of the gift from the Municipal Art Society? Where else might it go?

Beverley Compton, who was president of the Municipal Art Society when it made the $750,000 gift to mark its centennial and still serves on its board, said Borofsky’s sculpture wasn’t meant to be temporary and wasn’t meant to be relocated.  “It’s a permanent sculpture,” he said. “It was site specific.”

Asked whether there is any documentation that spells out the terms of the gift, Compton said that’s a question for Peter Doo, the society’s current president. Doo said he doesn’t recall the society putting any restrictions on the gift but would check its records. Like Compton, he said the sculpture was specifically meant to be in front of Penn Station and was approved by a variety of boards and agencies during Mayor Martin O’Malley’s tenure, as well as Amtrak, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Baltimore.

“It was a gift to the city and it was never intended to be moved,” he said. “It was intended to be a permanent installation.”

At the same time, he said, “there was no restriction from the Municipal Art Society. If Borofsky had any restrictions, I would have to check. My memory is that there were no restrictions…Anytime we’ve done something, it is a gift to the city. We don’t own any of the work that we’ve either purchased or commissioned or otherwise funded. We support it financially, to get it done, and then it belongs to somebody else. It is the intention that all of our sculpture is on public land and in the city of Baltimore, so presumably, these things belong to the city of Baltimore.”

Doo said he has always been puzzled by the negative reaction the work has received because it was widely praised when the society was planning it. He said he doesn’t believe the Municipal Art Society would have any recourse if the city wanted to remove it.

“I don’t know that we have any authority or power to do anything about it,” he said. “We can stomp our feet and pound our fists, but I don’t think we can do anything.”

Personally, he said, he is disappointed by the negative reaction to the sculpture and any talk of removing it.

“I think it’s a shame that it’s been controversial in a bad way…That thing was approved by so many people and then when it up, there was all this reaction to it and it’s like, where did that come from? In addition, I think there are people who really do love it. It speaks to people, and those who love it love it. But clearly, those who hate it really hate it. From a personal perspective, that’s been a big disappointment…I wish it would stay.”

There have been other instances when private groups have proposed changes to city-owned property and attempted to get them implemented. The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy came up with a plan to take out trees in the public squares east and west of the Washington Monument and plant new ones in a more orderly fashion, with better drainage. That plan has not yet received approval from the city’s preservation commission, in part because of opposition from people who don’t want to see healthy trees cut down and wait years for replacements to mature.

Is this new planning effort a chance for the haters finally to get their way and eliminate the Borofsky sculpture under the guise of making improvements to the area around Penn Station? Or will its fans prevail? The matter clearly seems up for debate.

Working with architects at Gensler and landscape architects at Mahan Rykiel Associates, Penn Station Partners is exploring ways to modify the plaza in front of the train station. At the GBC briefing, designers showed a plan that does away with the large traffic circle and replaces it with a greener landscape that has more trees and a more park-like feel.

The proposal is part of a strategy to declutter the plaza by keeping cars along Charles and St. Paul streets as much as possible and making the immediate area more of a pedestrian zone. Architect Peter Stubb of Gensler said the revamped plaza can be a “front porch” for the train station. Borofsky’s sculpture could still have a home in this altered environment, presumably, but it likely would be surrounded by trees and not stand out as much.

For now, Penn Station Partners is in the role of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, drawing up plans for areas it doesn’t have the power to change without getting permission from others. There is nothing wrong with creating drawings that show a vision of what’s possible. Its challenge will be building consensus and support for what it wants to do.

Pula said he knows there are strong feelings about the sculpture, pro and con.

It’s “a hot topic,” he said at the GBC presentation. “It comes up at every discussion…I’m surprised it wasn’t the first question.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

8 replies on “Fate of controversial ‘Male/Female’ sculpture “to be determined,” developers say”

  1. I love the sculpture. A Baltimore beacon and icon. Makes me happy every time I see it.

  2. Someone with knowledge of art and architecture should suggest to the parties involved in making a decision about the future of the sculpture that it would look more appropriate and very impressive in front of the new entrance to the station on north Charles Street.

  3. To me, the Jonathon Borofsky work has always been a great announcement that this is a city of culture and sophistication. It is blocks away from one of the country major art schools,and is now situated in the middle of the Station North Arts District.

    This striking and important piece of work does much to work against the all too familiar media/entertainment version of Baltimore City.

    Please, let the city keep it where it is.

  4. Keep the Colossus of Baltimore where it can continue to welcome visitors to our great city!

  5. It’s an eyesore and a disgraceful symbol of our city. I’d rather have, as a welcoming piece of art, a giant sculpture symbolizing the great medical strengths we possess.

  6. I LOVE IT!! I look forward to seeing it every time I head that way. It is magnificent – where else do you have equality of the sexes = and a light show!! Please don’t touch it, don’t move it – it is fantastic and well loved.

  7. I was sorry they didn’t approach a local sculptor to commission. Would have been better received.

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