Yesterday, a crane lifted a modernist sculpture of cantilevered steel beams into the outdoor courtyard of the Portland Museum of Art on High Street, just half a block from Congress Square. The sculpture, called "Moment," is the work of British sculptor Anthony Caro, and is the second piece in the museum's collection of outdoor art (not counting architect Henry Cobb's celebrated design of the museum building itself), and comes to Portland from the private collection of donor Dr. Guido Goldman.
While it's a museum piece and not technically part of Portland's public art collection, which is owned and managed by the city, "Moment" nevertheless occupies a prominent place in downtown Portland, and it's certainly public in the sense of being free and accessible to passerby.
This year's annual meeting of the American Society of Landscape Architects hosted a discussion about how art can enhance a city's public spaces and parks. Public art may be more important to a city's success than most people — artists included — might suspect. A recent survey by the Knight Foundation indicated that the "aesthetics of a place," including "its art, parks, and green spaces," ranked even higher than education and the health of the local economy as indicators for how "attached" citizens are to their communities.
Public art is inherently unique to a city and a neighborhood. It's designed to interrupt the more generic aspects of the urban landscape with something surprising and unexpected. And once a piece of public art is a familiar and established piece of the city's landscape, it becomes a part of the city's identity, how we think of ourselves as a community.
I pass the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Monument Square almost every day. But as familiar as it is, no other city has a sculpture or a square exactly like this one: it's a reminder of the sacrifices the city made for the sake of abolition and civil rights, and of the growing city's ambitions in the years after the Civil War. I'd like to think that the tradition of fighting for the causes of justice and civil rights continues in Portland to this day.
For now, "Moment" is new to us: something unusual to break the stride of busy pedestrians heading up High Street. But as the years pass by, and it becomes more familiar to those of us who live here, "Moment" will become a Portlander in its own right, another one of the unique neighbors who make the city a richer place.