It towered at 15 feet. Its edges, sharp yet smooth, danced toward the sky, directing viewers’ eyes upward. Clad in steel, it gleamed in the sunlight. For more than 30 years, “The Guide,” a public art installation by sculptor Ayokunle Odeleye, stood strong and greeted students in front of Baltimore City College before they walked through the high school’s doors.
Then, in 2014, a city-commissioned art conservator made her rounds to survey public art across Baltimore for upkeep, which included Odeleye’s piece.
It was missing.
“I almost had a heart attack,” Odeleye said. “I said, ‘What the hell?’ And my wife and I were like, ‘That’s impossible. How could a piece just disappear?’”
But this was not the first time a work of public art in Baltimore — this one bigger and heavier than four adults combined — seemed to vanish into thin air. Odeleye’s piece was just the most recent in a long string of disappearances (and the second from City College).
Since 1992, 14 works of commissioned, taxpayer-funded public art installations have been reported completely missing, partially missing or irreparably damaged.
The list encompasses every work of public art in Baltimore from 1885 to 2020, with the artist, title of the piece, year it was commissioned and a photo attached. Also included are two works in which one has gone missing, and the other is damaged — but those details are not mentioned.
The other 12 missing and damaged pieces are not listed at all.
Were the pieces stolen? Decommissioned? Were they vandalized? Broken? Not one person The Baltimore Banner contacted can account for what happened or where the works are. Not the artists, not city workers. No one.
The Public Art Commission, a citizen review board managed by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, is the sole entity responsible for approving public art works and shelling out the funds for construction, but it’s unclear if they are responsible for missing art. Chair Aaron Bryant declined to comment.
BOPA itself does not claim any role in the mystery. Despite providing administrative support to the city’s Public Art Commission, BOPA interim CEO Todd Yuhanick said “the processes and decisions of the PAC are wholly theirs.”
As fingers are pointed and no group can seem to say what happened to the various pieces, a group of three artists, conservators and advocates have been demanding answers for more than a decade. They call themselves the Friends of Public Art, or FoPA.
Despite years of meetings and FoPA’s best efforts to bring attention to the cause, there’s been no movement from city officials to get to the bottom of what happened — and more public art has gone missing since.
Friends of Public Art
You may not even notice the public art installations around you as they blend into everyday life and become part of the fabric of a neighborhood, said artist, art advocate and FoPA member Linda DePalma. Whether or not you take notice of them, your tax dollars are the reason they exist.
“You own these” pieces, DePalma said. “We all do.”
“Red Buoyant” by Mary Ann Mears is a part of thousands of people’s daily lives, though it may have faded into the background of their commutes. Situated at the corner of East Pratt and Light streets by the Inner Harbor, the 10-foot, bright red sculpture, installed in 1978, is hard to miss, but as much as part of the city fabric as the sidewalk in front of the Starbucks on which it rests.
Mears, a member of FoPA, has been on the forefront of trying to get answers about what has happened to the missing works, not only for other artists, but for herself, too.
Her first public work, “Brio,” was commissioned in 1979 and stood in front of the Fort Worthington Recreation Center. “Brio” was made of steel, had perching spots that jutted outward, curved in numerous directions and stretched 10 feet in height.
Mears originally painted the piece red, but in 1992, an art surveyor named Cindy Kelly recorded it was painted swimming-pool blue.
Fifteen years later, the same art surveyor discovered it was missing.
Kelly, now also a member of FoPA, was contracted by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation in 1992 to survey all outdoor sculptures in Baltimore — 240 pieces at the time, to be exact.
One of CHAP’s duties is to “conserve and maintain City-owned outdoor sculpture and monuments,” according to the commission’s website. CHAP did not respond to a request for comment.
Kelly called Mears to tell her about “Brio” when she first found its color had changed, and again, years later, when she saw it was gone.
Shortly afterward, Mears visited her sculpture’s former spot and found play equipment in its place, which is “classic,” she said. “That happens all over the place — this is not the only instance.” She called the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, who told her the facility was now a Police Athletic League center. Hearing that, Mears asked the police what happened to the sculpture. They couldn’t tell her.
“I didn’t push it anymore because, negative energy,” Mears said. “It’s so hurtful and sad, and I don’t have the psychic bandwidth.”
In 2017, Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School was built in its place.
Kelly said she was the first person to document the city’s missing art. In 1992, the historian documented that two pieces had vanished, and in 2007, noted five more pieces had disappeared while conducting her own survey of public art to prepare for her book, “Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore: A Historical Guide to Public Art in the Monumental City.”
Every artist Kelly talked to while doing her survey said they had no knowledge their art was gone.
Working closely with FoPA for years to also push for answers is Ryan Patterson, BOPA’s public art program manager from 2013 to 2019, and the current arts capital program manager/public arts project manager at the Maryland State Arts Council.
The whole process of approving art pieces and allocating funds for them falls under the 1% for PublicArt Program, which “requires that the City allocate 1% of all Capital construction costs to go toward public artwork,” according to a 2021 press release from Baltimore Comptroller Bill Henry enforcing the measure. The program was set as law in 1964, with Baltimore the second city nationwide to pass such legislation.
Patterson said artworks commissioned through municipal money — such as the city’s 1% program — tend to fall under the category of capital improvements, such as the construction of a new building, but the funds do not account for the maintenance and upkeep of art.
“It’s inherently like when you have this construction process to create a new building, and then a little percent of that money is set aside to make artwork to go with that building and accompany it,” Patterson said. “Maintenance and operation are funded differently, and often artwork is not included in the maintenance and operation. So it’s like attaching this purchase of a new piece to your major investment, but you never budget for the upkeep.”
When a building gets renovated or even replaced to the point where the city would have to invest in new capital, it’s likely that a new art commission would go with the reinvestment because there is not money set aside for maintenance, he said.
“And a lot of times, that means that artworks get erased with it,” Patterson said. “I think some of the public looks around a city like Baltimore and feels like it’s underrepresented by African American artists when you look at the whole collection, but I think it’s important to realize that there have been a number of significant works by African American artists that have either been lost or erased through the processes of urban renewal or renovations of buildings where those artists’ works were located. Preserving those works isn’t usually a priority.”
That is the case within the missing sculpture collection: One work, consisting of five wall murals by Norman Ives and Robert Reed, disappeared during construction. The pieces had been housed at The SEED School since 1971, but after a renovation around May 2014, the murals and eight auditorium doors were thrown out, Kelly said in her report on missing art.
When it comes to who dismantles a piece to be sure it’s conserved properly, it’s hard to place blame because it varies widely on whose job it is to keep the pieces safe. Legally, though, the City of Baltimore is responsible for maintenance and preservation of the artwork.
“Generally, there’s just often a lack of understanding of what the proper way to care for that work is or who’s responsible for a given work,” Patterson said. “Each circumstance has a whole story in itself that we could go into, but I don’t think any two are the same.”
During Patterson’s time at BOPA managing the city’s 1% program, “There was not an explicit amount of money to set aside for maintaining the artwork, and we have this amazing huge collection of work with no real budget for that.” To combat that lack of conservation, Patterson said, in the past three years at MSAC they’ve developed the Public Art Across Maryland program, a conservation grant that funds “communities and local governments to rally around conservation and maintenance projects that are priorities for them locally, so they can access funding to save those pieces.”
He said many pieces in Baltimore have received the funding.
What’s missing, and what’s at stake
Of the 14 commissioned artworks at the center of the mystery, 11 have not been found at all. These pieces included sculptures made of brass and steel, and murals that were housed at schools, recreation centers and even on street corners. They reached numerous feet in height and would have required a crew of people to even attempt to move them. FoPA member DePalma said the metal and copper elements in the pieces, which have value to scrapyards, could be part of the reason some have vanished.
Five installations are partially missing and show signs of damage from vandalization or improper upkeep. One of the damaged pieces, “Untitled,” by renowned Baltimore artist James Lewis, featured dozens of bronze cylinders standing upright atop concrete steps at Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School. It was commissioned in 1974, and in a 1992 art survey, Kelly reported half the tubes missing. In 2007, every bronze tube was gone.
A 20-foot steel sculpture called “Lady Madonna with Child” by Stan Edmister was discovered cut up and placed in the Druid Hill Park construction yard and was later completely discarded.
Another steel sculpture, “Untitled” by Joel Perlman, was found damaged in 2009 after the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company tried to move it “without any knowledge of how to do that. The piece was then discarded, although “it certainly could have been restored,” Kelly said in the survey of missing art in Baltimore.
The contracting company did not respond to a request for comment.
Though all of the 14 art pieces were commissioned decades ago, they have racked up quite the impressive dollar amount, thanks to inflation.
Odeleye’s sculpture, “The Guide,” was commissioned for $23,371 in 1980. Today, that’s more than $90,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.
Mears’ “Brio” was commissioned for $3,600, which is now equivalent to $16,182.92 — more than four times the original amount.
Altogether, the missing and damaged public art works would have been commissioned for the equivalent of $1.4 million in 2023. That doesn’t take into account their artistic value, meaning the schools, nature preserves, recreation centers and any location that housed these sculptures have lost more than just the works themselves.
In 2016, the cost of these missing pieces raised alarms for Baltimore’s then-Inspector General Robert H. Pearre. His office, using Kelly’s findings with help from Patterson, investigated the missing public artworks and found that still, no group could take responsibility for what had happened to the art.
“This situation has occurred primarily because of a lack of accountability among the various responsible organizations with respect to the proper preservation, protection and maintenance of the public artworks located at city schools,” the 2016 report reads. “As a result, 12 pieces of sculpture originally commissioned for approximately $258,000 but which could potentially have higher current values, are missing or have been discarded.”
The general public just doesn’t see art for its value, Odeleye said. He compared it to moving a Picasso painting to put a soccer field in its place — the value of the art needs to be considered.
“The school system — the administrators — are probably not thinking about assets like that, because those are valuable assets,” Odeleye said. “And whoever moved it [’The Guide’] … they’re not thinking in terms of, ‘We’ve got a piece out here worth probably millions of dollars.’”
Though Odeleye, 72, has been an artist for decades, he remembers the hot day in 1980 when “The Guide” was unveiled and he felt a wave of relief wash over him. The towering steel sculpture was his first-ever commissioned piece, and he said he saw it as one of his kids.
“I was simply happy to have a 15-foot sculpture in front of the City College overlooking Baltimore.”
He has created numerous sculptures of varying sizes since, but he just wants to know what happened to his very first.
He’s still waiting.
Former Baltimore Banner reporter Imani Spence contributed to this article.