Portland panel selects New York artist for Congress Square project

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PORTLAND —New York-based sculptor Sarah Sze has been selected to create art for the redesign of Congress Square.

The unanimous vote came at a Public Art Committee meeting Monday in City Hall.

Sze’s commitment to collaborate with design consultants Wallace Roberts & Todd of Philadelphia was cited in the choice. Committee members said they were delighted with all four artists who applied for the $75,000 design grant.

“They were all great finalists and it was a very hard choice,” local sculptor Pandora LaCasse said.

LaCasse and committee member Allison Hildreth were co-chairwomen of the Congress Square Public Art Commission, which endorsed Sze at its Aug. 15 meeting.

Joining Hildreth and LaCasse on the Congress Square Public Art Commission was Public Art Committee member Tony Muench, who also complimented Sze and the other applicants Monday.

“They were all different and incredibly gifted … It is not a right or wrong call, each one of them could have been and would be good for the job,” Muench said.

The Congress Square Public Art Commission also included Jessica Tomlinson of the Maine College of Art; Jessica May of the Portland Museum of Art; neighborhood resident and artist Anne Buckwalter of Space Gallery; architect Scott Simon, and Portland Westin General Manager Bruce Wennerstrom.

“We didn’t just have one unanimous choice, some had two people, but (Sze) was on almost everyone’s list,” Muench said.

Sze has been exhibiting her work globally for almost 20 years and presented examples of work that fit into the context of outdoor settings while bringing viewers into the art itself.

Her creations of suspended fabric and rock were on display at the 56th Venice Biennale in Italy last year, and her work will fill the new 96th Street subway station in New York.

Sze, along with Ned Kahn of Sebastopol, California, Patrick Marold of Denver, and Matthew Ritchie of New York, were named finalists after 97 artists applied for the grant. Each finalist presented their work at an Aug. 8 forum at the Portland Museum of Art.

WRT was selected as the design firm in May.

Sze and WRT will next host a three-day “storefront workshop,” city Urban Designer Caitlin Cameron said. The plan is to set up shop near Congress Square and show new preliminary concepts for the art and park redesign while inviting the public to be part of the process.

“That will be the most visible next step,” she said. “It will be them already working on the designs.”

Cameron said the workshop is expected to take place in late September or early October.

Sze’s commission comes from $225,000 the Public Art Committee has accumulated over the last few years from city capital improvements budgets. There are no estimates available for the redesign project, because as Cameron noted, there is no final design in place.

Cameron did estimate as much as $300,000 to $400,000 could be spent on art for the redesign, at least to give Sze a baseline for what she might create.

Public Art Committee Chairwoman Lin Lisberger said the overall fundraising effort will not begin until designs for the area from the PMA to the Westin Harborview, including the intersections of Congress, High and Free streets are more detailed.

“We are hoping to kick-start fundraising late winter and early spring,” LaCasse said, adding that online “crowdfunding” will be a component of fundraising efforts.

Sze’s selection continues the progression of Congress Square redevelopment that began after the attempted sale of 9,500 square feet of the area outside the Westin Harborview to hotel owners, who envisioned building an event center in the space.

Portland councilors approved the $543,000 sale in September 2013, but before it was completed, a successful June 2014 referendum placed the area in the city’s land bank and changed the requirements needed to sell land bank parcels to private companies.

Following the referendum, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group renewed its work on the area’s future, leading to the request for proposals from artists and design firms.

Last year, the Friends of Congress Square received a $100,000 grant from Southwest Airlines and the nonprofit Project for Public Places to improve the space and expand its potential public uses.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Artist Sarah Sze presents her design for Congress Square Aug. 8 at the Portland Museum of Art. Sze was selected to work with design firm WRT on Aug. 22.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.