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Maya Lin's interactive playground sculpture presents latest quandary

What do a bronze elephant, a pricey dog bowl and a brushed-metal tripod have in common? All are works of public art placed within spitting distance of one another in downtown Portland during the last year.

Public artworks such as these three examples reflect some of the thorny issues of public taste, siting and cost that surround public art.

When the desires of a particular neighborhood don't match that of the commissioned artist or the group making it happen, problems inevitably arise.

A good example of the difficulty of getting public art sited is the Pearl Arts Foundation's attempt to place an interactive playground sculpture by renowned architect Maya Lin, the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

If approved, the playground, now moving slowly through the Pearl District neighborhood approval process, will be placed in a block-size park three blocks north of Jamison Square in the Pearl District. The developer of the planned park, Hoyt Street Properties, set aside $50,000 per block for art.

Like making sausage

Bookstore owner Michael Powell now has two stores that sit directly within view of two works of public art. Powell's Technical Books is in the shadow of the elephant, and the main entrance to Powell's City of Books is across the street from 'Pod,' a new kinetic sculpture at the intersection of Tenth Avenue and West Burnside.

'Pod' cost $50,000 and was paid for by the Portland Streetcar Project, with help from BBC Steel. Pete Beeman is the artist; the materials are stainless steel, bronze and titanium.

A kinetic feature pulls together the sculpture's symbolic components Ñ if one is tall enough to reach it and give it a shove, that is. The rest of us will require hoisting in order to get our hands on it.

Powell thinks the pod is 'wonderful' in spite of his misgivings about what he calls the grinding process that public art is put through before it hits the streets. He has sat on committees for both the Oregon Arts Commission and the Regional Arts & Culture Council.

'Public art is a little like making sausage,' he said. 'You just don't want to know what goes into it.

'When you have committees making decisions about art, what you usually wind up with is a compromise,' he said. 'What's actually acceptable tends to have narrow parameters.' This tends to leave a city with a preponderance of safe sculptures of, well, animals.

Still, even animal-related pieces can draw criticism.

'Portland Dog Bowl,' in place since last February, is just two blocks north of the elephant. William Wegman's whimsical sculpture was inspired by the Benson Bubbler drinking fountains, which captured the imagination of the artist during visits to Portland.

The dog bowl has stared down its share of ridicule.

'I took a group of art students down to the park with an assignment to find the new public art,' said Pacific Northwest College of Art instructor Daniel Duford. 'And they couldn't find it.'

Perhaps the most active arts organization these days is the Pearl Arts Foundation, which gave the city the 'Portland Dog Bowl' and Kenny Scharf's 'Tiki Tote Moniki' totem poles. It's a privately funded arts organization that commissions international artists to create public art in the city. It goes after big donors and corporations for most of its funding.

Paige Powell, director of the foundation, said making public art happen in Portland is always a struggle. The dropped plan for a windmill atop the Multnomah County Building, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. is a good example of what can happen to ambitious projects headed for the public sphere, she said.

'There is so little money,' Paige Powell said. 'And people don't really get concepts. People are very rigid in the way they do things. They think that the process should be a certain way, but some things happen serendipitously and it's like an opportunity.

'She (Maya Lin) really wants to do this out of friendship, it came from the heart. In more progressive cities, people would grab on to this and run with it. It's such a great opportunity to have this sculpture here.'

Patricia Gardner, chairwoman for the Pearl District Neighborhood Association land-use planning committee, said that it's best to be cautious but that no one is spurning Lin's project.

'Nobody's saying that we don't want a Maya Lin sculpture,' she said. 'That would be insane.'

A public workshop about the park and the proposed placement of the sculpture will be held Jan. 25 at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.

'One of the things this designer (landscape architecture firm Atelier-Dreiseitl) will do is show a design with the Maya Lin sculpture and one without,' Gardner said. 'The neighborhood at large will end up being asked if they want that sculpture in that location or another location. So we're still in the education process. In February or March there will be a broader question posed to the entire neighborhood: Do you want it here? Do you want it at all? Or do you want it someplace else?'

Two issues keep coming up, Gardner said. 'People are concerned about whether or not it fits in with the purpose of that park, and people are concerned about whether it fits the scale of that block.'

Consider the elephant

Sometimes public art just falls in the city's lap. Take the case of the new Chinese elephant, now located in the North Park Blocks between West Burnside and Northwest Couch streets.

The 12-foot bronze sculpture is a gift to the city from Chinese businessman Huo Baozhu, who visited Portland a number of times and became smitten with the city.

A delegation that included city commissioners and members of the Regional Arts & Culture Council traveled to the foundry in China and selected the elephant from a menagerie of other bronze figures. They picked the elephant over the others because Portland has been crazy about elephants ever since Packy, now 40, was born at the Oregon Zoo in 1962.

The Chinese elephant received a red-carpet welcome upon its arrival, one that included a parade, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and visits by a coterie of City Hall types.

RACC accepted the elephant in accordance with its donation policy. A task force made up of the council's Public Art Advisory Board and the parks bureau chose the location, which has been approved for five years. The elephant may one day move from the North Park Blocks to Chinatown, once the Chinatown Redevelopment Project is finished in three to five years.

'I like the elephant,' Paige Powell said. 'That part of the Park Blocks needs more people visiting it.'

Still, she doesn't think Portland has 'great art' to match other cultural treasures.

Nonetheless, through the pioneering work of groups like the Pearl Arts Foundation, new public art projects will eventually reach Portland.

Paige Powell hopes to move ahead with a project by the artist Jenny Holzer, who is famous for placing her text-based work in public settings.

And French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel will create 'Boat Fountain,' the first work to be placed by Pearl Arts outside the Pearl District. Located in the North Macadam area on private property, the ambitious work will reflect Portland's relationship to water.

Public art will always have spirited defenders and feisty detractors, which can be expected when objects are placed squarely in the public sphere. And though debates about public art can be noisy, it's often the safe, colorless approach that wins out.

'We're trying to make Portland a true, cosmopolitan town,' Paige Powell explained. 'We're trying to expand people's minds and visions.'

Contact Michaela Bancud at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..