City accepts Sea Dogs statues as “surprise” gift


A photo of a photo of a clay model of a statue the city accepted as a gift of public art last night. (photo/Chris Busby)
A photo of a photo of a clay model of a statue the city accepted as a gift of public art last night. (photo/Chris Busby)

City accepts Sea Dogs statues as “surprise” gift 
Team logo judged art, not an ad, by councilors 

By Chris Busby

As expected, the Portland City Council voted late last night to accept three bronze statues being presented as a gift from Portland Sea Dogs owner Dan Burke. 

Less expected were the statues themselves. 

Burke’s attorney, Bill Troubh, told councilors last night that though the minor league baseball team owner had gotten the idea to commission and donate the statues to the city in 1999, he kept the gift secret until last month because “this was to be a surprise.” 

All nine councilors voted to accept the statues. They did so against the recommendation of the Portland Public Art Committee, the nine-member body appointed by the council and charged with evaluating potential public art based on the city’s public art ordinance and guidelines. Six of the seven members who voted opposed accepting the work, which was made by sculptor Rhoda Sherbell of Long Island, New York, an artist whose previous pieces have been accepted by several respected museums. 

Among the criticisms cited in a March 17 letter sent to the council by acting committee chair Jack Soley is the fact Burke presented the statues to the committee after they were all but complete, effectively negating the public body’s ability to influence the work’s size, design or content. Many of the dozen or so local artists in attendance last night urged councilors to reject or reconsider the statues out of respect for that public process. 

Soley also cited the committee’s concerns that the super-life-sized statues (the adult male figure is nine feet tall, not counting a foot-high pedestal) are too large to interact with, and that the boy figure has Sea Dogs logos on his cap and back – a form of advertising, some committee members said. City guidelines stipulate that “the proposed donation of artwork shall not contain commercial advertising.”

Soley made no mention in the letter of the figures’ ethnicity. Last Wednesday, a media-fed mini-firestorm was set off after the Portland Press Herald quoted Soley saying the city has enough “white folks on pedestals,” according to theBoston Globe.

But as City Councilor and Public Art Committee member Karen Geraghty said last night, the statues’ ethnicity was never a major factor for committee members. “Not one member ever said we should not accept them because of diversity,” she said.

Geraghty tried unsuccessfully to make the city’s acceptance of the work contingent on removal of the prominent team logos. 

Councilor Jim Cloutier said the logos are not a form of commercial advertising, though he added, “I don’t know if I can articulate a clear line to draw” to explain that distinction. 

Cloutier’s logic didn’t win over all of his colleagues – “it is an ad,” declared Councilor Jill Duson. But after Troubh said Sherbell informed him earlier on Monday that the logos cannot be removed at this stage of the process, Geraghty’s amendment failed by an 8 to 1 vote (Geraghty the exception).

Mayor Jim Cohen said the city should appreciate that Burke’s gift is being made “in the right spirit.” 

“This is the right artist, on the right subject matter, in the right place,” said Cohen. 

“In no way is this [acceptance of the statues] intended to mean the Public Art Committee and its process is not valuable,” Cohen added. “It is.”

The statues, which will be placed outside city-owned Hadlock Field in locations yet to be determined, will be available for viewing in a month or two, Troubh said.

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