Four finalists pitch proposals for public art piece in Congress Square

Ned Kahn of Sebastopol, Calif., makes his proposal for a piece of public art in Congress Square. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ned Kahn of Sebastopol, Calif., makes his proposal for a piece of public art in Congress Square. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Four internationally known artists competing to win a lucrative contract to create public art in Congress Square Plaza pitched their ideas to more than 100 people Monday night at the Portland Museum of Art.

The Portland Public Art Committee plans to choose a winner by the end of August, according to committee Chairwoman Lin Lisberger.

The winning artist will receive $75,000 to create a conceptual design in collaboration with a landscape architectural firm, Philadephia-based WRT, which will also be paid $75,000. The committee hopes this will be ready by spring. The total cost of the project won't be known until a design is chosen, but the committee already has $225,000 set aside, Linsberger said. The committee and a private group, the Friends of Congress Square Plaza, expect to raise additional funds, she said.

"It's going to be a hard choice. They are all so good," Linsberger said of the four finalists, who are all from out of state. "We are hoping that the public art we go with will prove to be the crowning achievement that holds the park together."

A total of 97 artists presented proposals. The four finalists are: Ned Kahn of Sebastopol, California; Patrick Marold of Denver, Colorado; and Matthew Ritchie and Sarah Sze, both of New York City.

Linsberger said "a handful of Maine artists responded," to the request for proposals, but none met requirements that include having experience creating large pieces of outdoor art that can last up to 25 years.

No one criticized or questioned the lack of a Maine artist among the finalists at Monday's forum – 130 people signed up in advance to attend. But two of the finalists have ties to Maine, Linsberger said. Ritchie is building a home in Blue Hill and Sze has been coming to Maine to visit family and friends for years.

All four artists were in Portland on Monday where they were interviewed by the committee and given a site walk of the plaza, which is next to the Westin Portland Harborview hotel, formerly known as the Eastland Hotel.

Congress Square Plaza is located at a busy five-way intersection that WRT has been hired to redesign. The public art installation is to be integrated into the redesign of the plaza and intersection.

Each artist was given about 20 minutes to make a presentation about why they should be hired, but none offered specific proposals. That won't occur until the selected artist has met with the landscape architect.

Kahn said he has created public art in locations across the globe, including pieces in Perth, Australia, and in Singapore. He likes to create artwork with a connection to nature.

One of his installations on what had been a "bleak urban" plaza in Pittsburgh consists of a "forest" of thin, stainless steel poles that move in the wind. Fog drifts through the forest "evoking a whole different micro-climate," Kahn said.

In Singagore, Kahn designed a vertical glass container that fills with water, forming a huge vortex that drains down a two-story building before emptying into a pool.

Sze has done a lot of public art in New York City, including in Central Park. She has also created public art installations in Venice, Italy. She said she was attracted to the Portland site because it has a lot of potential.

"I think the park has the potential to do many things at once," Sze said. Because the space is currently sees many types of users, "I think the artwork in this space has to be flexible," she said.

In one public art installation, Marold used over 250 beetle-kill logs from Colorado to create a shadow array at the Denver International Airport. The array is lit up at night. In another installation, he created a field of windmills in Iceland that light up at night.

Ritchie presented slides of an art installation he created in a square in Istanbul, Turkey, that plays 40 different songs. Because the sculpture is wired for sound, the art piece can be used for musical performances as well.

"Whoever you end up choosing, know that you've chosen from a wildly different array of artists," Ritchie said.


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