The community paintings were covered over with gray paint in May by Mass MoCA.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The community art project painted on the columns of the Veterans Memorial Bridge may be gone — or maybe not.
Artist William Oberst told the Public Arts Commission on Thursday that the paintings of mill children and textiles made by the long-defunct Arnold Print Works may only be hidden below a coating of new gray paint.
"There was a preservative layer done over the art," Oberst said, describing it as an antigraffiti sealant.
There is the possibility, he continued, of removing the gray layer. "We talked with the paint manufacturer and they said it was a very good chance of it being successful."
The commission encouraged him to come back with an application to do just that.
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts' decision to paint over the pieces over a month ago caused an uproar. The museum's director, Joseph Thompson, described the repainting as a "restoration" of the "Harmonic Bridge" piece, installed in 1998. The artists who secured the grant funding for the project, and guided the schoolchildren in painting the columns, felt they'd been blindsided with no notice. Both sides claimed that they had the rights to the use of the columns.
Thompson has admitted the museum failed in properly alerting the local artists and the city before going ahead with the painting, done during the runup to the opening of Building 6.
Oberst said he and art teacher Christina King had met for a "very good hour" with Thompson after stories about the loss of the paintings had been published. Most of the discussion, he said, had been about restoring the community art.
He said Thompson was setting up a meeting with the "Harmonic" artists but Commissioner Nancy Ziter thought that while talks with Mass MoCA were fine, pointed out the museum has no control over city property.
"Realistically, when they wanted to paint the columns they should have come here," Ziter said. "To me, it is a moot point, there was no contract with the city. ...
"If you want to put in a proposal to put up your paintings, you don't have to wait for them."
The coverage of the paintings more than a month ago raised issues of the permanence of public art, legal authority over the bridge, and the role of a Public Arts Commission that didn't want to be the "art police."
Artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger created "Harmonic Bridge," two 16-foot long resonating tubes under the overpass and microphones that pick up sounds in the key of C, harmonizing the cacophony into a humming sound. The piece was one of several placed around the city in 1998 as part of plans for the opening of Mass MoCA.
The community art project was done about five years ago, first on one side of the bridge and on the following side the next year. The gray pillars that had been considered part of "Harmonic Bridge" sported elements of the city's history. Thompson had noted their creation, but not said anything at the time, believing the paintings temporary, he has said.
The leaders of the community project had no idea the gray pillars were part of anything other than the bridge. The projects had been given verbal OKs by two different mayors nearly 15 years apart — no contracts or other documentation appear to exist.
The city owns the bridge and its underpinnings, having been given what had been the Artery Project "lock, stock and barrel" by the state back in 1963, according to articles in the North Adams Transcript. The current administration had confirmed ownership several years ago when developing a capital plan for the city's infrastructure.
And more recently, the Public Art Commission was developed with the goal of creating and maintaining documentation of art on public property — and how long it should be there. While the commission has an application ready, it's still working on contract language to cover the installation of art — murals, sculpture or other — on public lands.
Vice Chairman Erica Manville had volunteered to be a liaison to Mass MoCA, the 800-pound gorilla in the mix that's an economic driver for the city. She also reported that her first meeting with museum officials had been constructive.
"We had a discussion about me being the liaison so we can be proactive rather than reactive," she said. "They were receptive."
Meanwhile, Oberst has talked to a couple art restorers and the manufacturers of the sealant who believe there's a good chance the gray paint can be removed.
"All points are pointing to a restoration," he said, although the cost could be an issue. "It's been broached as a very tragic loss of art when it need not be. ...
"What a wonderful thing for the public to see they're coming back ... it would just be amazing."
In other business, the commission also heard from Donna Motta, who is coordinating a community art project at Western Gateway Heritage State Park. The painting of a stylized tree will be painted by community members (and created by Keith Bona, who's done two similar participatory paintings) will also have collage "discs" created by individuals.
Motta was provided with some advice and told to come back to the commission if it was decided the art piece would be placed on city property.
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