The Public Arts Commission heard from supporters of the pillar art on Thursday.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Public Arts Commission is hoping to bring some resolution to the painted-over murals on the Veterans Memorial Bridge through some type of community forum and compromise.
In the meantime, the commission is asking the artists involved in the so-called "pillar art" to hold off on submitting another application to test if the art can be restored.
The controversial overpainting of the public school-led art on the pillars supporting the bridge dates back more than a year. The commission has declined so far to intervene, asking the artists involved to try to work something out but that effort has gone nowhere.
But several advocates are pushing the commissioners to take action, saying they have the power to order a test to see if the children's murals can be restored.
"It says you have to have a vote ... you never held a vote to destroy or remove the pillar art," said Joseph Smith, who owns a home in Clarksburg, at Thursday's meeting. "According to the ordinance it can only be destroyed by a vote of your commission. ...
"The artists don't have to prove anything. They didn't ask for the art to be destroyed."
In 2012 and 2013, Greylock School art teacher Christina King had worked with sixth-grade students to paint murals depicting pillow patterns made at the old Arnold Print Works and images from the famed Lewis Hines photographs of local mill children. The project had been part of an afterschool program and tied in with studies of the city's industrial past in the classroom.
The paintings had included the collaboration of artist William Oberst and Art About Town with Philip and Gail Sellers and other community members.
In 2017, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art had repainted the pillars a solid gray as part of a restoration of the longstanding "Harmonic Bridge" sound installation below the bridge. The museum was about to open its massive Building 6 renovation and the installation refurbishment and cleanup of the areas under the bridge were part of the preparations.
Bruce Odland and Sam Auinge installed "Harmonic Bridge" back in 1998 for the opening of Mass MoCA.
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 last year, despite applying for two other works on city property.
Commission Chairman Julia Dixon said the commission had been unsure of its purview over artwork that had been approved long before its establishment and did not have a contract.
Last summer, the commission rejected an application to try a small sample to see if the gray paint could be removed. They urged the artists to work with the museum to come up with a compromise.
On Thursday, the commissioners said they had been told that a meeting had been held last December but restoration had not been brought up. King said that wasn't true but rather the idea had been dismissed.
"A restoration was discussed at the dinner and the artist [of 'Harmonic Bridge'] that was present said he was against it," she said. "It keeps getting put back in our lap that we didn't talk but we did. ...
"We were told to go speak with [MoCA Director] Joe Thompson and the artists, which we did, and Mr. Thompson has not approached us regarding the next step."
The artists were offered the possibility of painting over Alaa Awad's 60-foot-long mural on Center Street that purportedly was deteriorating but rejected that idea, King said, because it would have put them in the situation of painting over another artist's work — the same thing that had been done to them.
Oberst, who did not attend Thursday's meeting, wrote in a letter to those involved in June that he'd gotten "negative feedback" on the proposal to overpaint the 4-year-old mural.
"It was pointed out to me that the mural shows no wear, in fact it's in near-pristine condition," he wrote. "People also tell me that because they miss the pillar art, any solution that leaves the pillar art completely covered over isn't really a compromise."
Smith said the community artists were willing compromise in only restoring the murals for a few more years.
Vincent Melito, a former city councilor, said he'd already collected nearly 200 signatures on a petition calling for the paint test to be done.
"There's a tremendous amount of support in this city," he said, centering the mural restoration as speaking for the city's history and its children. He later forwarded to iBerkshires numerous Facebook comments supporting the children's art.
His wife, Margo Melito, said a test should be done first because if the murals couldn't be restored, then a forum made no sense.
Vincent Melito and Smith see the destruction of the murals as overreach by a powerful local entity that acted as though it had more rights over public property than the public. The public murals were a victim, in that sense, said Smith.
They also argued that the murals had no effect on the sound installation and asserted that the pillars being painted gray were not part of the artwork. Commissioner Eric Kerns, however, said he was working at Mass MoCA at the time and the raw concrete had been painted for the installation.
The commission said the matter was more complex since the pillars were painted gray as part of the sound installation, then the school project painted over them, and then school project was painted over in turn. Restoring the murals would be yet again painting over an artwork, said Kerns.
"The case is there's two artworks on city pillars," said Dixon. "We have three options: vote to remove, vote to make a contract with the sound artists or vote to make a contract with [Oberst and King]."
Dixon also said the commission had not really received much feedback about the pillars.
"This is the first time we've had any number of people show interest," she said. "I think we need to do something about it. ... I want the commission to think through what we can do."
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