You know your public meeting has gone horribly wrong when the assistant city attorney assigned to it starts yelling at the chair: “Stop!” “Hold up.” “Please stop!”

The gathering of the Annapolis Art in Public Places Commission devolved into angry accusations, indignant interruptions — “don’t talk to me like that” — and finger-pointing over how members wound up on the hook for public art gone awry.

Not just any art. Hundreds of people wrote to the commission to say they loathed three concepts floated last month as possibilities for a permanent sculpture on Westgate Circle, a gateway of sorts to downtown Annapolis.

After debating for almost two hours who was to blame, who was distorting the facts and who made the most ridiculous faces over the digital meeting link, the commission voted to table the process of picking an artist and start again.

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Then they argued about what “tabled” meant.

“I am adamant that we move forward and we not talk about what happened in the past,” commission chair Lyn Farrow said.

As the meeting proved, madam chair, au contraire. That’s not how Annapolis works.

Or the art world. The three proposals and the commission’s process were not only panned by local critics but also by national figures — one of whom attacked it on Instagram in scatological terms that generated almost 1,000 more barbed opinions.

“95% of all public sculpture is crap because it is left to large bureaucratic systems,” wrote Jerry Saltz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for New York Magazine.

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Which brings me to this: What now?

What should go in Westgate Circle, where West Street, Spa Road and Taylor Avenue converge near Annapolis National Cemetery?

Here, then, are my five ideas, all on the Unity theme that the commission selected, interspersed with comments from the meeting.

None will get serious consideration, in part because the nine art commissioners are taking a break from talking about this.

And maybe to each other, as well.

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1. Burning money.

Annapolis is the seat of three levels of government, with a hefty presence of a fourth. What do city, county, state and federal governments have in common? They burn through a lot of cash.

The art commission is no different and just blew through $7,500 for this project.

So, why not a pile of burning money at the center of Westgate Circle?

How about a pile of burning money? The scrapped process for a new sculpture cost $7,500.
How about a pile of burning money? The scrapped process for a new sculpture cost $7,500. (Rick Hutzell / Shutterstock)

The commission had awarded $2,500 stipends to three groups chosen as best-qualified, who in turn submitted concepts for the circle. A committee appointed by the commission had winnowed a list of 40 interested groups to nine, and a second committee made up of commissioners and members of the public approved the final three.

One of the artists pulled out after seeing public reaction to the ideas, and another might not have met a residence requirement in the original call for entries.

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“Just so you know … we would not ask for the stipends back,” Farrow said during the meeting.

The commission, which is funded through a percentage of hotel tax revenue, set aside $50,000 as seed money for this project. It planned to raise the projected $300,000 needed for construction from donations and grants.

Now, it has $42,500 for whatever comes next.

2. Bickering.

Another feature of government is arguing. Elected officials argue all the time. Appointed officials like volunteer art commission members do it, too.

Sometimes, there is a good reason. Discussing important issues of the day can get heated.

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And sometimes, it feels like something else is going on. For example, Farrow, the commission chair, and members Jim Martin and Genevieve Torri went round and round throughout the meeting, discussing flaws in the selection process.

Here’s a slice.

“So it said that the entire selection committee was to review the initial proposals. That did not [happen],” Farrow said.

“But if you read further down, it states that they will present those proposals. So I think that’s actually ...” said Torri, who helped create the process as the former commission chair.

If Annapolis is a town where there are lots of arguments, that would be a good subject for art.
If Annapolis is a town where there are lots of arguments, that would be a good subject for art. (Rick Hutzell / Shutterstock)

Farrow: “But they didn’t review them, Genevieve.”

Torri: “There’s a verbiage issue in there.”

Farrow: “It said our committee would review them. It did not.”

Torri: “Pardon me, but there’s a verbiage issue in there. … It should have said initial applications because it was not the intent. Go back and — May I finish please, thank you — If you go back and you …

Martin: “I really wish you’d stop.”

Torri: “Watch the meeting.”

Martin: “We should stop.”

Torri: “Jim, please.”

Martin: “No, please. I really think it’s time.”

Everyone would immediately understand the meaning of a sculpture of people arguing — call it “The Commission” — even without verbiage.

Or we could all argue about it.

3. Nudes.

When you get down to it, everyone is nude (under their clothes). There’s unity in that.

And, to the best of my knowledge, there are no nudes among the statues of historic and community figures across Annapolis.

A classical nude can’t be called porn. You study them as art in high school, or at least I did.

So how about something classy?

To the best of my knowledge, there are no nude sculptures in Annapolis. That would be different than sailboats at Westgate Circle.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no nude sculptures in Annapolis. That would be different than sailboats at Westgate Circle. (Rick Hutzell / Shutterstock)

Longtime commission member David Arthur said he read the comments about the three ideas pitched last month and wants to make sure we don’t go in a direction that many of the critics suggested.

“I just want this piece to represent the people of Annapolis,” he said. “Because we’re not all sailboats and seafood. We’re artists, we’re teachers or students, we’re soccer moms and dads. We’re a wide range of people, and I just want this piece to represent the people of Annapolis, not Annapolis [the city]. We’re not sailboats. I don’t want to see another sailboat. I’m done.”

No sailboats, then.

Maybe, unless there are classy nudes aboard.

4. Dogs.

Everybody loves dogs. Well, everybody should love dogs.

Even if you don’t own or want one, who could resist a huggable dog that doesn’t need to be walked, or who doesn’t chew on your new shoes, slobber on your face or bark at every damn thing going by the window?

What a friendly symbol for the people of Annapolis, especially when they’re confused. Confused while going around a traffic circle, for example, or during a meeting to discuss public art.

“To be perfectly honest, I’m a little still confused [about] what just happened ...” commission member Barbara Torreon said. “And I’d like more input from the community.”

What could go on Westgate Circle now that a plan for a new sculpture has been "tabled?" How about a dog?
What could go on Westgate Circle now that a plan for a new sculpture has been "tabled?" How about a dog? (Rick Hutzell / Shutterstock)

5. A big eyeball.

How does a big eyeball represent unity?

Well, Annapolis is a small town, and one of the things that keeps us together is transparent government. People are watching, even when it’s just a journalist.

“I really want to make sure that we are moving forward, that we make sure that the public understands the process,” arts commission member Chrisa Rich said. “And I’m not just talking about an article that another journalist puts in.”

Ouch.

More than 180 people watched the Jan. 17 commission meeting on the city’s YouTube channel. And lots of them had something to say.

“This is infuriating and 100 percent dismissive and disrespectful to the artists who spent (wasted) their time and creativity on this application process,” Loni Moyer, who worked on one of the three entries that made the cut, wrote in the comments section. “Collectively, AIPPC should be embarrassed.

“The community wasn’t disrespectful to the artist. But AIPPC and its internal bickering have been. Plus, you have shown weak leadership.”

It would be best if this eyeball could be made to follow drivers as they pass around the Westgate Circle.

There's no electricity or water on Westgate Circle, and something shiny would distract drivers. How about a big eyeball to let everyone know they're being watched?
There's no electricity or water on Westgate Circle, and something shiny would distract drivers. How about a big eyeball to let everyone know they're being watched? (Rick Hutzell / Shutterstock)

Now, Annapolis waits.

The commissioners don’t plan to come back to the circle until summer. They’re hoping they don’t get sued over scrapping the process that got them to this point, although city purchasing officer Mike Garasca called that unlikely.

They’re hoping that next time around, they won’t get roasted by the public.

And at least some of them are hoping for no more sailboats.

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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