The Public Arts Commission is urging the community arts group that created the mill children murals to work with the museum.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Public Arts Commission is asking both sets of artists whose work is under the Veterans Memorial Bridge to find some kind of compromise.
Two months ago, community-sponsored murals on the bridge's pillars were painted over by Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to restore a previous work, "Harmonic Bridge."
Both pieces predate the establishment of the commission and neither had more than a verbal agreement with city. Nor did the museum approach the commission for permission to paint over the murals, despite applying for two other works on city property.
On Tuesday, the community group's application to test the pillars to see if its works could be restored was rejected.
"Three wrongs don't make a right," Commissioner Eric Kerns said in trying to encourage the artists to partner.
William Oberst, the lead artist on the community effort several years ago, submitted an application — based on the commission's advice — to test a patch of one of the pillars to see if the artwork underneath could restored. He also supplied a budget and scope of work for restoration that he estimated at $1,200, with the inspection by a conservationist at $200 to $400.
The murals of textile patterns and mill children had been treated with a top coat to protect them and the community artists believe it may be possible to remove the gray top coat applied by Mass MoCA.
"The restorer will, I assume, take some solvent and apply it to the column ... that's the first phase," Oberst said. "If it doesn't work, it's a moot point, this entire project."
Oberst also said museum director Joseph Thompson was trying to put together a meeting with the community artists and "Harmonic Bridge" artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, a point he'd raised at the last meeting.
He said Thompson has seemed sympathetic to the community work and thought the sound artists would be amenable to changes.
Larry Smallwood, Mass MoCA's deputy director, however, asked that the commission "work with us to find a new place for this work to exist."
"What I'm hearing is you saying other people's views," Kerns said to Oberst, and that he was hearing something completely different from Smallwood.
He also pushed Oberst to provide data to back up at statement on his application that said the artwork helped draw visitors toward the downtown. Oberst said the feedback had been anecdotal but felt the work was an attraction.
Commissioner Nancy Ziter cautioned that the commission had no money to aid the group, and that the total application could not be approved. In her mind, the group was asking permission to do a test sample to see if the restoration was feasible.
"How big does it have to be?" she asked, because the sample size was not in the application. Oberst said a 2-inch square, based on his own expertise.
Ziter asked that the person doing the testing provide the size; Commissioner Gail Sellers motioned that the commission approve the testing with a condition it not be more than 6 inches square. That motion failed with only Ziter voting with her.
Chairwoman Julia Dixon sided with Kerns in believing that any application related to either work be submitted by both groups of artists.
"There are two different artworks on these pillars," she said. "It should come from both of you."
Sellers felt Oberst and his group had been misled because the commission had told him to make an application since it had authority over any art on the bridge. Kerns thought the situation was too complex to right with a single applicant.
Resident Vincent Melito, from the audience, thought the onus was on Mass MoCA to fix the situation, including paying for any test or restoration.
Dixon said the group needed to come back with something from Mass MoCA, "which is your partner, for better or worse."
The controversy had been dumped in the lap of a commission still feeling out its role in the city's heirarchy. The commissioners spent about a half-hour discussing their relationship with other commissions and city boards — both the Parks & Recreation and Airport commissions had recently approved "ornamentations" that could be construed as falling under the art commission's purview. Or at least worth notifying the commission of their decisions. And other projects are being publicly discussed that have yet to make their way to the commission.
Some members thought it may be a case of the commission not being known or its mission understood.
One option, they decided, was to have the mayor's office send a letter from the commissioners introducing them to other boards. Nixon also thought it important to develop a cultural plan with a list of priorities to better communicate its mission, and possibly promote its own public art project.
They talked about sounding out local businesses and organizations to develop partnerships for creating or supporting public art projects. That way, said Kerns, the commission would not have to deal with funds.
"We're here to help facilitate and I think having an idea is great but a lot of people don't know we exist," Sellers said. "We need to get out and say we're a resource and can be a facilitator. There are artists out there who can write grants and we can support them."
The commission had lobbied for an amendment last year to give it more authority on supporting art, rather than just overseeing inventory and contracts. Members thought the commission should be more proactive in line with those changes.
"We need to do something so the community knows we exist," said Vice Chairwoman Erica Manville.
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