North Adams Public Arts Commission wants to talk about public art with Mass MoCA

Museum welcomes the communication

This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, June 21, 2017 to include a response from the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

NORTH ADAMS — Members of the Public Arts Commission have expressed a desire to hold a public forum with Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art officials to address lingering concerns over the museum's decision to paint over public art on Marshall Street.
"There needs to be communication between the Public Arts Commission and Mass MoCA, in particular, because they are the largest body that we deal with," said Erica Manville, a member of the commission, at its June 7 meeting. 
Two weeks later, Mass MoCA has yet to receive a request from the commission for a public forum but "would welcome it," according to Jodi Joseph, the museum's director of communications. 
The commission was established less than two years ago in part to resolve and avoid conflicts like this one. 
Last month, Mass MoCA painted over the mill children and Arnold Print Works dolls artwork, which had been installed by local elementary school students in the summers of 2012 and 2013, on the Route 2 overpass columns on Marshall Street.
Mass MoCA believed that the mill children paintings had actually infringed on the museum's Harmonic Bridge installation, for which the columns were meant to be painted a specific shade of gray. The subtle artwork, commissioned in 1998, amplifies any sound in the key of C generated when vehicles travel across the bridge above.
The Public Arts Commission has authority over art on all public spaces — the bridge is owned by the state and maintained by the city — but both of these projects were installed prior to the governing body's existence.
The controversy, which has raised the ire of many in the community, calls into question what ability the commission has to enforce its authority over public art.
Mass MoCA did not go before the Public Arts Commission for permission to repaint the columns.
"If anybody in the city does any public art project on city property without coming to us and going through this proper channeling, what happens? Do we have the right to remove public art that was put up without being approved?" said Commission Chair Julia Dixon at the June 7 meeting. 
Manville said the commission should show that it is ready to have repercussions.
"When you have power, and you think you're right, you don't necessarily feel like you need to ask for permission," Manville said.
Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson has apologized for how he handled the situation, saying that notifying Phil and Gail Sellers of Art About Town, which had sponsored the students' column project, was not adequate and that he should have communicated directly with the artists involved. But he also expressed sympathy with the Harmonic Bridge artists, whose work, he believes, was altered. 
Gail Sellers, who sits on the Public Arts Commission, expressed frustration with Thompson, and told her side of how the events unfolded.
"When Joe called, I was very taken. The fact that they would paint over that just flabbergasted me, especially without any conversation. It wasn't asking permission," Sellers said.
Prior to the commission's existence, approval for public art projects was generally provided through the mayor's office.
It's unclear if the artists of Harmonic Bridge and the museum ever had a contract with the city.
"That is something that we need to know, because that determines what somebody can and can't do to property that has art on it," Dixon said.
The commission also addressed the issue of how long the mill children paintings were on the columns without any dispute from the museum. Thompson has said the the museum did not raise the issue initially because of the effort that had been put into the art's creation, and that Mass MoCA assumed the columns would not be permanent.
"That's almost like implied consent, to not say anything when it happens," Manville said. 


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