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Local Art: Don’t Fence Us Out

March 19, 2008

Sometime after the ninth or 900th person e-mailed me yesterday asking what I thought of MICA undergraduate Lee Freeman’s gold chain link fence currently surrounding the public park at Mount Vernon Place, I suspected that yet another local “art” controversy was brewing. Then I read Sun art critic Glenn McNatt’s Critical Mass blog post about it–and the bordering on irate comments readers posted in response to it on the Sun web site and Freeman’s project site–and, being a cynical, opinionated, scalawag blow-hard, sneered to myself, Great, here goes Baltimore overreacting again.

A brief recap: This school year’s edition of George Ciscle’s Exhibition Design Seminar teamed up with the Walters Art Museum’s Maps: Finding Our Place in the World and the citywide Festival of Maps for the student-organized Beyond the Compass, Beyond the Square, which places 10 MICA students’ works in Mount Vernon Place. MICA student Freeman’s gold-painted picket fence went up Sunday, March 16, and comes down Saturday, March 29, for Beyond‘s community opening. During this two-week period, though, Freeman’s fence prevents people from entering the park’s four quadrants and even extends into the street a bit, adding a new wrinkle to parking on already tight neighborhood streets.

Unsurprisingly, neighborhood residents weren’t pleased. In reader comments and personal e-mails I’ve received, people have expressed outrage over the inconvenience and Freeman’s glibness. Where are Mount Vernon residents to walk their dogs or play with their kids? Where can they sit and enjoy the day or read or hang out with their loved ones? How dare some bourgeois academic artist keep neighborhood taxpayers from enjoying a public good.

Now, it would be ever more glib for me to tell people to get over it–because all these responses aren’t overreactions at all. Anger, exasperation, and outrage are the sane and rational reactions from people who don’t know the why or for how long their neighborhood will be held captive by some outside force. It usually looks like this:

which you would find if you walk two blocks over from Mount Vernon Place to the corner of Howard Street and Madison Avenue. So, yeah, perhaps Freeman isn’t exactly subtle when he calls attention to a public space in one of Baltimore’s most renown and beautiful neighborhoods by surrounding it with a gold-painted chain-link fence, but that makes his biggest sin obviousness–not moral blindness.

Three days into this fence’s erection, I really don’t know how I feel about it, even though I see it every day because City Paper‘s offices are in the neighborhood. I’d probably have a stronger opinion on it if I lived in the area. Then again, I’d probably have a stronger opinion about many chain-link fences surrounding more common transitional areas–such as the Baltimore neighborhoods impacted by the East Baltimore Biotech Park–if I lived there, too.

Area residents have organized a protest to the fence scheduled for 5:15 p.m. this evening at the Washington Monument. More news sure to come.

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