Six illuminated stars hang from a tree in Portland, Maine’s Longfellow Park. They remember the six young adults lost in a harrowing house fire last year – Maine’s deadliest fire in decades – on Noyes Street, a few steps away.
The artwork was commissioned and funded by the Noyes Street Memorial Committee, headed by one of the victims’ widows, Ashley Summers.
“This memorial actually gives us a new place to go to rather than the old spot where the actual fire was,” Summers told the Portland Press Herald in October.
However, the Noyes Street Memorial was not embraced by all. The project was briefly put on hold for further review after neighbors objected to the lighting component and lack of public input on the installation.
“Public art with this strong emotional content should allow for choice to interact. Residents such as me would be a captive audience, unable to choose when to interact with the art,” one school board member wrote, per an October Forecaster article.
The memorial was ultimately approved for a three-month permit, but left questions about the City’s temporary public art selection process in its wake.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic has proposed adding new mechanisms for public input in this process as a result of the Noyes Street Memorial discontent, the Forecaster reports. His ideas include requiring mailed notification of a proposed public art site to all property owners within 250 feet, as well as opening applications to public comment before permits are granted.
Per Portland’s existing Temporary Art Guidelines, artists submit an application to the Public Services Department, where it is reviewed by a panel consisting of a Public Art Committee member, an urban designer, a designated artist, and a DPS staff member. Artists may have to meet with the panel, and they receive notification of approval or denial via email.
While there are mechanisms to include local stakeholders in the process, there is no requirement for public review.
Temporary (one year max) public art in Portland is not funded by the City, but per the Guidelines must be installed on public property, and in the case of the Noyes Street Memorial, the City needed to install electricity at Longfellow Park.
“Public art can be very emotional and trigger strong responses,” Suslovic told the Forecaster. “In this case, it was magnified exponentially. The neighborhood was traumatized by the fire as well.”
The Public Art Committee will meet on Dec. 16. The Forecaster reports that Committee Chair Lin Lisberger “is uncertain how far the Committee may go in discussing Suslovic’s suggestions.”