Three years ago, termite damage convinced the arbiters of public art in Annapolis that it was time to end the nine-year run of Bobby Donovan’s cedar sculpture, “Shoal,” at the center of Westgate Circle near downtown.

Always intended as a temporary installation atop the grassy center of a traffic roundabout, the work was meant to evoke the ribs of a ship in a boaty town. Almost anyone with an eye for art saw it as more akin to a brontosaurus-size rack of barbecued spareribs fit for Fred Flintstone.

The artist was never offended by the comparison.

“No, it’s good. It’s great. It’s public dialogue. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Donovan said.

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Now, the Annapolis Art in Public Places Commission is moving to restore public art to Westgate Circle, a gateway to downtown. This time, the plan is to make it permanent.

“We have $50,000 in seed money to start,” said Genevieve Torri, chair of the commission. “And then we will see what the need is based on the proposals from the artists.”

In a state capital with dozens of murals and public sculptures, this is a big opportunity for any artist looking to shape a cityscape.

Westgate Circle is a stone’s throw from Annapolis National Cemetery and serves as a crossroads linking Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Maryland Hall, the Annapolis Arts District and City Dock. Almost every parade in the city steps off within sight of this spot.

And that emerald hoop commands attention, even when you’re cursing at drivers who don’t know the rules for going around it. It rises a dozen feet or more above the roadway where West and Taylor streets meet Spa Road.

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Torri and I recently braved Monday morning traffic — this is seriously not a circle intended for pedestrian visits — and ran over to talk about the idea.

So, what should this sculpture be? A sailboat, or a Skipjack? A historical figure tied to Annapolis? George Washington resigned his military commission down the street, and while Harriet Tubman may never have set foot here, she led enslaved people to freedom from Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Or should it be something that tells the story of a changing city?

“It’s one of the entry points into the city, so we want it to represent the city as a whole,” she said. “Whatever that vision is, is up to the artists. We’re not putting restrictions on what that visual would be. We’re curious and we’re excited to see what the vision is of the artists as to what represents Annapolis and what is unity to them for all of our communities here.”

The arts council will collect proposals and pass them on to the Art in Public Places Commission for review. When criteria for submissions and entry forms go online later this month, they will be posted on the websites and social media channels for both groups. What goes into picking the sculpture includes art, but also artistry and engineering.

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“Does it fit the space? You have to think about how we install it. How do we get it there without stopping the traffic flow here?” Torri said.

Donovan saw the site’s potential. The circle can contain something big — his work was 20 feet long and 18 feet high. The location in the middle of a traffic circle means drunken revelers are less likely to scale it on a wild Saturday night.

“Because it’s isolated on an island like, that is kind of good,” he said.

This won’t be the first time Annapolis has considered public art for the circle. In 2019, New Orleans artist and stuntman Walker Babington proposed “Pursuit of Truth” for the site. He grew up near Annapolis, the son of former Washington Post reporter Charles Babington.

He proposed a giant typewriter with five metal typebars flying upward, songbirds in the place of letters, intended to represent the five journalists shot to death in June 2018 at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis. The commission rejected it unanimously, saying the design was so unique that it would tempt people to cross traffic into the circle to get a closer look.

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Talk about dangerous art.

The call for proposals, which will be launched by the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, comes at a moment of creative growth for sculpture in Annapolis.

Annapolis offers a self-guided tour of old favorites, including the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial at City Dock, a statue of Thurgood Marshall as a civil rights icon at Lawyers Mall and numerous works on the Naval Academy Yard.

Additions include a bronze of Greek-Italian-American painter Constantino Brumidi in the little park next to the circle, a mix of shapes and sounds at Maryland Hall called CUBEMUSIC, “Araminta with Rifle and Vévé” at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, and a sculpture garden at the Busch Annapolis Library featuring the works of David Hayes.

Some of this is about money. The Art in Public Places Commission helped fund some of these works, thanks to a new source of revenue.

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Mayor Gavin Buckley came into office in 2017 and restored money for the commission, which had been cut by the previous administration. Then last year, Torri and others convinced state Sen. Sarah Elfreth to submit legislation dedicating 3% of hotel tax revenues collected in the city to public art.

“The art that we generate brings visitors,” Torri said. “It may not be the main reason that they come, but it’s a second thing and we want it to be the main reason that they come.”

Babington, the artist whose idea for the circle was rejected by the city, is certainly interested in giving it another try. He worked on his design to address concerns about safety, including the addition of a viewing stand, without success.

“I’d be ecstatic about doing this,” he said. “That location has never left my mind.”

But Donovan, whose “Shoal” occupied the spot for nine years, doesn’t plan on coming back. He’s moved on.

Later this year, Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park will unveil his latest work — “Undercurrent.” There won’t be ribs, but the work will include plastic bottles and fish intended to start a discussion about plastic pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Genevive Torri, chair of the Annapolis Art in Public Places Commission, walked over to the middle of Westgate Circle to talk about plans for a permanent sculpture.
Genevieve Torri, chair of the Annapolis Art in Public Places Commission, walked over to the middle of Westgate Circle to talk about plans for a permanent sculpture. (Rick Hutzell)

And while he doesn’t think there was termite damage to his most famous Annapolis work, he fondly recalls the conversation he started.

“It had its champions and it had its detractors,” he said. “No doubt.”

rick.hutzell@theBaltimorebanner.com