People can be so mean.

“There’s an economic disconnect if the city is considering spending half a million dollars on one of these monstrosities while established arts organizations in the city are receiving little to no funding.”

“The two with hands almost look like there are almost dead people reaching out — gruesome.”

“I love art, including modern art, but these three options are awful.”

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Annapolis is trying to build a new sculpture at Westgate Circle, a little roundabout that serves as a boundary between downtown, the national cemetery, and part of the city that doesn’t have an easy description — call it outer West Street. The goal is to symbolize unity.

Early in December, the Art In Public Places Commission narrowed dozens of submissions to just three and posted them online with a call for feedback. They got what they asked for — just maybe not what they expected.

“I am underwhelmed by all three of these options,” wrote Sean O’Neill, husband of Alderwoman Karma O’Neill. “The Coleman proposal looks like people drowning and grasping for a lifeline. The Haddad proposal looks like a condom and although the Team 4A proposal is passable, it reeks of nepotism, as one of the members of this team is the daughter of the former mayor, founder and chair of the AIPPC.”

Each proposal would cost about $300,000 to be raised from grants and private donations. The commission, which is funded from hotel taxes collected in the city, put up $50,000 in seed money.

What it will do with the comments is unclear.

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“If you take a public comment to reconstruct an artist’s vision, then you are basically attacking the integrity of their art,” said Genevieve Torri, a former commission chair who represents the area around the circle. “It’s up to the artists. This is their vision.”

The proposals include one from a longtime Annapolis family, which asked that its name be withheld until a selection is made. They worked with Washington, D.C., muralist and sculptor Jay Coleman on “Exalted Heart,” a design that features three bronze hands surrounding a red heart. The family offered to fund its construction and asked for a small plaque honoring one family member.

Another came from well-known Annapolis muralist Cindy Fletcher Holden and landscape designer Loni Moyer, daughter of former Mayor Ellen Moyer. They submitted “Bloom Where You are Planted” as part of a group named Team 4A. It features eight aluminum hands shaped as ornamental grasses and springing 10 to 30 feet up from a bed of native plantings.

In the third, Atlanta artist Tristan Al-Haddad proposed two interlocking ellipses connected by 150 linear elements, creating a sort of red metal mesh called “Symbiosis.” When viewed from different spots around the circle, the design represents different things: a mother and child, a ship cutting through the sea, or the elliptical orbits of the planets.

Turns out everybody’s a critic.

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“Buy a giant oak tree sapling and plant it in the center for 1/150th the cost of the artwork. Low maintenance and certainly far prettier than the last piece of artwork that occupied the space,” Steve Wise wrote.

That would be artist Bobby Donovan’s cedar sculpture, “Shoal.” Installed in 2011 as a temporary presence atop the grassy center of the circle, the work was meant to evoke the ribs of a ship in a nautical town. Even Donovan admitted it could also be compared to whale bones on a beach or a brontosaurus-sized rack of barbecued ribs.

It came down in 2020, the commission said, because its wooden base had fallen prey to termites.

Proposals for the sculpture’s replacement generated many comments that were tough on the art and the people behind the project.

“Frankly, all three of these choices are terrible,” wrote Andy Bienstock, program director at public radio station WYPR in Baltimore. “How did we get here? Who made these poor choices?”

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The commission started the process by asking interested artists to submit their qualifications, plus how and where they would build a sculpture and its components. Entries were ranked based on judgment of ability.

Then came the concepts from the top three. They went online Dec. 6.

A few people liked what they saw.

“I really like the red abstract sculpture for the circle,” photographer Kaitlyn McQuaid wrote. “I appreciate its movement and beauty and its subtlety while being open to interpretation.”

Annapolis muralist Cindy Fletcher Holden submitted a design as part of Team 4A, which features aluminum hands spring from native plantings.
Annapolis muralist Cindy Fletcher Holden submitted a design that which features aluminum hands springing from native plantings. (Courtesy photo)

More than a few people pointed out an unintended connection to the nearby Annapolis National, Brewer Hill and St. Mary’s cemeteries.

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“Art is subjective, and the beauty of it is in the eye of the beholder. With that caveat, I implore you to consider some other options,” Maria Yeager wrote. “The two with the hands coming out of the ground is like the dead have escaped from the nearby graves.”

There were plenty of comments about what kind of art is right for Annapolis.

“Our city is, among other things, an important piece of colonial history, a four hundred + year old seaport (now yachting center) a state capital and the home of the U.S. Naval Academy,” former alderman Fred Paone wrote. “None of these sculptures reflects any of those ideals or values. We should go back to the drawing board. They are all a waste of taxpayer money!”

Chelsea Treadwell of Annapolis wrote to the commission that none reflect any element of place and all “stand out in an awkward way.”

“Please, please don’t use the fountain/spray green metal thing,” she wrote. “It looks like the entrance to a retirement villa in Boca.”

A submission by Atlanta artist Tristan Al Hadad features two ellipticals that echo the circle and are connected by a sort of mesh.
A submission by Atlanta artist Tristan Al-Haddad features two ellipticals that echo the circle and are connected by a sort of mesh. (Courtesy photo)

Some wondered if Annapolis needs a new sculpture at all.

“I live nearby and that traffic circle sees a lot of accidents and congestion already,” Christine Collins wrote to the commission. “I’m afraid that adding the art could be distracting and add to this.”

The commission was initially scheduled to meet and discuss the comments on the day after Christmas but postponed that until Jan. 30 after complaints that the process was too rushed. The deadline for comments has also been pushed back until Jan. 20.

If any of these proposals are selected, it won’t be the first time art has upset people. But what happens next is unclear. The list of masterpieces hated at their debut is long.

“For some people, it’s just not their thing,” said Torri, the commission member. “That’s fine, because art is different for everybody.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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