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Free art on Free Street: Civic Center, MECA collaborate on Portland wall

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Free art on Free Street: Civic Center, MECA collaborate on Portland wall

PORTLAND — A barren stretch of concrete along the Free Street facade of the Cumberland County Civic Center may soon be transformed into a work of art.

The 140-foot-long wall will be the subject of a Maine College of Art class this fall. Seventeen students in "Inhabit: Explorations in Drawing and Painting in Portland" will use the wall as a "canvas" for a mural or another form of public art, according to Roberta Wright, who oversees marketing for the Civic Center.

The art installation, which will be done at no cost to the Civic Center, is expected to be complete by the end of the year, she said.

Course instructor Shirah Neumann declined to discuss the nature of the installation. Civic Center officials have the final say over the artwork, and have already ruled out "graffiti-based" works, according to a city memo. The art must also be able to endure hazards such as weather and vandalism.

But Wright said there are no restrictions on the theme or medium of the work.

"We're not putting any limitations on (the students)," she said. "We want to see what they come up with."

The art installation is a little-known part of the Civic Center's ongoing $33 million renovation, expected to be finished in January. While the massive overhaul includes adding luxury suites, club seats, and modernized locker rooms, renovation plans also call for a creative use of the bunker-like wall.

"From the beginning (of the renovation), we wanted to identify every opportunity to improve the building, functionally and aesthetically, soup to nuts," Neal Pratt, chairman of the Civic Center board of trustees, said.

An ad-hoc committee of Civic Center staff, city officials and others has been working for a year to come up with ideas for the concrete slab. Eventually, it may be the site of a permanent art exhibit.

Although hosting art exhibits didn't seem to be on the minds of Civic Center planners when the building was constructed in 1977, it could be joining a trend. In recent years, cities such as Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C., have commissioned works of public art for their sports arenas.

To begin the process of creating a permanent exhibit, the committee is now developing a request for proposals, Wright said. But it's not clear when it will be issued, and funding for a permanent exhibit would have to be raised independently of the renovation budget.

An obvious source of funds is a corporate sponsor. The Civic Center is already recruiting sponsors, who typically pay big dollars for naming rights, exterior and interior signs, advertising and other types of branding. In Bangor, Cross Insurance paid $3 million for rights to name the city's new 5,800-seat arena.

Facing pedestrians at eye level, the Free Street wall seems a ready-made billboard. But the space lacks the high visibility of other spots on the building, such as the new entrance being built at Center and Spring streets.

Pratt said there have been no discussions yet about selling rights to the wall, and that a bigger priority is simply improving its appearance.

"The focus is to give (the wall) an artistic treatment, in a way so that is it integrated into the neighborhood, and that is pleasing to the community," he said.

On Sunday, a passer-by was pleased to hear the news.

"This is an ugly block, no matter what they do to the rest of the Civic Center," said East End resident Jane Silverman. "I would think any piece of art here would be an improvement."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.