PORTLAND – When the City Council rejected an offer of a statue of city founder George Cleeve in 2002, local businessman Phineas Sprague Jr. gave the gift a home on his Portland Co. property on Fore Street.
Four years later, if the council turns thumbs down on bronze statues that the owner of the Portland Sea Dogs wants to donate to the city, Sprague is prepared to accept them “in a flash.”
The council could, as early as Wednesday, take up the question of whether to accept the statues from Daniel Burke and allow them to be installed on the sidewalk outside Hadlock Field.
The city’s Public Art Committee has raised objections to the statues, which show a family of four going to a baseball game.
The panel expressed concern about the statues’ size and their depiction of the team logo, while saying that the family portrayed in the statues failed to reflect the city’s racial diversity.
The bronze statue of Cleeve, who arrived here from England in 1633, was offered to the city as a gift from the George Cleeve Association. Opponents swayed the council with the unsubstantiated theory that Cleeve owned a slave.
“It was completely fictitious and yet it had enough legs to hurt those old ladies [who donated the statue],” said Sprague, himself a descendent of Cleeve.
While 87 percent of the respondents in an unscientific survey on MaineToday.com said the statues offered by Burke were “appropriate,” a Public Art Committee member took issue with critics who suggest that the city should accept the gift in the generous spirit it was given.
“From what they say, we should have to accept a statue of Ronald McDonald as public art,” Jay York said.
Portland isn’t the only place where figurative sculptures have become grist for controversy.
Public art projects in southern California that celebrate the immigrant experience often draw the ire of those who oppose illegal immigration, said Steven Durland, co-director of the national nonprofit Art in the Public Interest and its Community Arts Network.
A group in North Carolina wants to remove a courthouse statue of a Confederate soldier because it represents a pre-Civil War way of life.
And in Boston, an aluminum sculpture of five Polish patriots on horseback was recently removed from Boston Common after several decades of controversy over its right to be there.
“It’s interesting to see what’s going to push buttons,” Durland said. “Public art can be a litmus test of underlying issues in a community and provide an opportunity for people to say what’s on their minds.”