The Public Arts Commission is hoping to find a spot for artists to recreate their work or to create new public art.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — There may be a breakthrough in the lingering controversy over the painted-over pillars on the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
At Monday's Public Arts Commission meeting, the commissioners and artist Christina King agreed to discussions to find an alternative site for something similar to the pillar art.
"I would advocate that in 30 days that this commission brokers a meeting with whoever you want who is directly involved in the decisionmaking of this work," Vice Chairman Eric Kerns said. "And that a decision is made. Is that fair?"
King said she could not speak for fellow artist William Oberst, but thought a location with "equal prominence" would be suitable.
"I'm certainly willing if somebody could come up with something that gave us this kind of presence," she said.
Commissioner Bryan Sapienza said someone had suggested to him that the artwork could be placed more prominently on the span of the bridge, similar to the banners used by the city.
King said the goal of the project had been to attract visitors to the downtown in addition to celebrating the city's textile history.
"If you're going under the pillars, you're more interested in what the traffic is doing," Sapienza said, adding that the lighting and visibility would be better on the span.
King thought it could be "a very fine meeting in the middle."
In 2012 and 2013, King, a Greylock School art teacher, 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 Oberst and others.
Almost two years ago, 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 PAC did not exist at the time of either of the original paintings and neither set of works has any documented contract; both were apparently verbally approved by the mayor at the time. The museum, however, did not notify the PAC of the restoration. The third mayor in this, Thomas Bernard, had declined to approve taking a sample to see if the paintings could be restored, a request the PAC had also rejected in 2017 because it felt Mass MoCA would also have to be involved.
King confirmed that Bernard had determined there would be no testing and that the artists had been offered Egyptian artist Alaa Awad's mural to overpaint.
"We thought that would be inappropriate," she said, because it would have been the same action taken against them. A second request to take a sample was submitted to the PAC in November but not acted upon.
There was some discussion of what would happen if the test sample showed that the school art could be restored — which would affect the original "Harmonic Bridge" installation and its restoration.
"It would be contrary to the goals and missions of this commission to advocate for the destruction of another artwork," Kerns said during the discussion, adding, "how many wrongs make a right?"
The pillar discussion had not been on the agenda but came up when Commissioner Cynthia Quinones read into the record emails she had received from Vincent Melito and Joseph Smith, both of whom have been outspoken advocates for the children's pillar art.
Kerns expressed frustration with the "hyperbolic communications" from the two men that threw around terms like "illegal" and accusations against him of unethical conduct because he is a partner co-founder of a business, Bright Ideas Brewing, on the Mass MoCA campus.
He said former Chairwoman Julia Dixon had contacted the state Ethics Commission and Quinones said she remembered "it being resolved as not an issue."
"Having my business and my name dragged through the mud is not something I want to continue," Kerns said, telling King that "it's my personal opinion you're not being helped by these proxies."
Commissioner William Blackmer objected that the commission should not be discussing the matter because it was not on the agenda.
"I'm not hearing anything new in that correspondence," he said. "We've heard all this before."
Despite his protest, the conversation over the pillars continued and Kerns made the pledge to King to bring the stakeholders together in a private meeting.
Kerns described the commission as currently being in "disarray." Several commissioners have left and the commission had spent much of the summer in a power struggle with the mayor over which entity had authority over artists' contracts — and the chairman had quit in protest.
"We're in disarray and there's a causative effect of this process," he said. "We're not sure where we stand."
The commission had electing officers on the agenda but tabled the items because it is still short one commissioner and was informed by Quinones that she would be resigning for personal reasons.
Commissioners hope to meet with the mayor to discuss how the panel can have City Hall assistance. The seven-member board has been feeling its way with no staff support since its inception three years ago.
"There's a level of 'undersight' that helps with connective through-lines when people change in and out," Kerns said. Sapienza noted that the PAC has no City Council liaison either.
Updated Feb. 14 to restore a paragraph accidentally deleted in editing and to clarify Kerns is a co-founder, not owner or partner, in Bright Ideas.
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