Baltimore Federal (1978) by George Sugarman

Commenting on the predicament of public space and land use in Hartford, Connecticut (a city whose struggles resemble Baltimore’s in many ways), artistic director of Real Art Ways, Will Willkins once said, “It’s not that there’s nothing to do in Hartford — it’s that there’s no where to do nothing.” Compounding this issue in the case of Baltimore is that there are so many public spaces that appear perfect for hanging out or “doing nothing” in, but that nobody ever seems to use. One such space is located at the intersection of West Lombard and Hanover, between the Inner Harbor and the newly christened “Bromo Tower arts and entertainment district.”

George Sugarman’s (1912-1999) large-scale, painted aluminum sculpture, Baltimore Federal (1978) was commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration in the late 1970s – during the good old days of substantial federal government-led arts initiatives. In typical fashion, the piece was and is quite unpopular with those who work in the building. In Roberta Smith’s 1999 obituary of Sugarman, she wrote that judges working in the building, “first opposed the piece on esthetic grounds but later said that it could be dangerous for children or could be used as a soapbox from which protesters might make speeches.” Moving even further into the absurd, in 1995 a U.S. Marshal at the time, Scott A. Sewell claimed that if a terrorist attack similar to the Oklahoma City Bombing were to take place in Baltimore, “The steel pieces would become shrapnel similar to that of a hand grenade, but on a much larger scale!” Controversies like this over public art (the most famous of which took place over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, and whose fate was not so lucky as Balitmore Federals), are fascinating because they put in question the notion that art is somehow irrelevant or separate from everyday life. Suddenly, the importance of art is quite visible. In this case, having to look and interact with a piece of art that these judges found unattractive and incomprehensible outraged them to the point of repeatedly suggesting its destruction or removal. Unfortunately, the judge’s disavowal of the sculpture and courtyard have become the city’s, as well. With no precedents for how to use the space, the space remains unused.

George Sugarman was born in 1912 in the Bronx. His father was an Oriental rug dealer and his mother a singer. He attended City College, then served in the Navy from 1941 to 1945. Following the war, he remained in Europe for several years, studying sculpture with Ossip Zadkine from 1951-1952. He moved back to New York in 1955 and began making sculptures, first in wood, and then later in the aluminum that would become his signature. In the 1970s, he began doing the large, outdoor commissions that Baltimoreans are familiar with. He had aspirations of wide accessibility in his public art, as demonstrated in a quote on the informational plaque accompanying Baltimore Federal, “The openness and accessibility of the forms and the variety of experiences they allow and needing no special knowledge to understand this work of art are concepts, which I feel are vital to public government interaction.” While the egalitarian metaphors that may have inspired Sugarman might not necessarily come through, Baltimore Federal does indeed provide an open, accessible structure with a variety of potential uses. There are several seating areas (although one might have to bring something to use as a cushion in the summer), places for children to play and climb, and probably most importantly, the structure provides areas of both sun and shade.

If you are downtown this summer and looking to picnic, shoot film, avoid the old haunts, etc. consider taking advantage of this slightly faded, but still perfectly usable, and interesting, public space.

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