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On the Other Side of the Bridges

Sculptures on two parallel bridges in downtown Northampton illustrate different—sometimes conflicting—ways that public art happens.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012
Photo By Mark Roessler
A portion of Sam Ostroff's mural is stored outside his studio so that its steel will rust to match the bridge it will be attached to.

A massive new metal sculpture now spans Main Street in Northampton.

Its builder, Sam Ostroff, owner of Salmon Studios in Florence, had been uncertain when it would be installed, but given the size, weight and complexity of his steel and copper rendering, no one was rushing him. City officials such as Wayne Feiden, the planning director who hired Ostroff and organized the fund drive to pay for the work, wanted Sam to have the time he needed.

Ostroff had been hoping to avoid freezing temperatures. It takes three large men to lift the individual elements, and they can’t take the twisted steel far without machinery. It was understood that when the metal mural was welded onto the side of the bike bridge facing downtown, traffic would have to be shut down and a massive forklift would be needed to raise the pieces into position so they could be welded and fastened into place.

A year ago, another work of metal was erected by David Teeple, the winner of an open call for proposals held by the Northampton Arts Council. Called Water Music, it was installed on the opposite side of an adjacent train bridge. The work faced away from town, where Main Street turns into Bridge Street. It replaced another painted mural that urged visitors and residents alike to “Dream.” Though Teeple’s construction is lighter in materials than Ostroff’s work, the 4,000-piece topographical rendering of a local stretch of the Connecticut River was similarly complicated to execute. (A detailed examination of its design and construction has been on view in the city’s Forbes Library.)

While two intricate metal murals will be installed in adjacent locations, there is a world of difference between how they came to be and how their conceivers hope they will be perceived.

The artist and his patrons agree that Water Music is art. Ostroff and Feiden maintain that the perspective street view is not art. It’s a debated distinction.

In emails to Feiden, the mayor and city councilors, a former member of the Public Arts Committee disagreed with Feiden. Mary Kasper claimed Ostroff’s work was indeed art and felt it was the Northampton Arts Council’s purview—not the city planner’s—to select artists and approve their works through an open public process.

“I find this quite troubling—and hardly ‘Best Practices,’” she wrote.

*

No one disagrees that Teeple’s work is art. On its “Public Art” page and in a related article, the Northampton Arts Council states clearly in several places that the sliver of blue snaking across a sea of stainless steel rectangles is most definitely art.

“The Connecticut River symbolizes the sustainable and ever-evolving nature of Western Massachusetts,” the artist writes in a statement about his work. “[It’s] one of the most politically, culturally and socially progressive communities in the country. A river is fluid and open. It is life itself. It nourishes us, offers a place for personal reflection, provides energy, cleanses and feeds us. Water is both feminine and masculine and embodies the possibility of living with social, political, economic and environmental balance.”

Along with several other applicants, Ostroff also submitted an entry to the Arts Council’s contest.

With big sheets of metal cut into silhouettes, he proposed a tableau of downtown buildings and people—a vision of what the street might look like without the bridges there.

The Arts Council put all the ideas on display in city hall for the public to review. There was a guest book where visitors could write down their reactions. According to Ostroff, most were favorable and supportive of his work. Since he had already built many signs for storefronts on Main Street and across the Northeast, he thought his previous experience might also help him get selected.

It didn’t.

The Art Council’s judges went with a design many now refer to as the “shower curtain option.” After months of waiting, though, the Arts Council finally conceded that the winning artists appeared incapable of installing their vision. The contest was reopened. Ostroff was invited to resubmit, which he did, revising his proposal. This time, the proposals were not put on display. Ostroff’s work was rejected a second time.

A few months after the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Teeple’s work, Wayne Feiden, director of Northampton’s Planning Department, began negotiating with Ostroff to build a revised and enhanced version of the twice-rejected mural. This time the bike bridge that runs between Fitzwilly’s and Moshi Moshi would be his canvas.

Around the time these negotiations were taking place, a truck hit the rail bridge, damaging Teeple’s work. Since the structure is known locally as the “truck-eating-bridge,” only the driver was likely surprised by the collision, but he had more reason to be surprised than previous drivers. Teeple’s art didn’t include placement of the sign in the center of the bridge, warning drivers of its maximum height limit. The sign had been removed during installation and not replaced.

The river mural has since been fixed, and the height sign has been placed to the side of the bridge, on the sidewalk.

*

In a September interview with the Valley Advocate, Feiden stated several times that the $32,000 his office has been raising to fund the project will not be buying art.

“These are signs for wayfinding,” he explained.

To promote tourism and use of the bicycle path system Feiden has played a key role in establishing, he’s been working on a series of signs along the paths that help newcomers find their way through the area, preferably by riding bikes on the rail trails. The elaborate mural over Main Street is part of that initiative, and since Ostroff built the kiosks that will hold the signage along the routes, it seemed appropriate that his work also adorn the new bike bridge.

“We had extremely specific requirements for the signage on the bridge,” Feiden said, explaining that he and his associates in the planning department were looking for something more illustrational than interpretive—something artistic, but not necessarily art. “We wanted cutouts of the elements that one sees on the rail trails,” Feiden said, “buildings, mountain vistas, people, bicycles and, of course, train elements.” Ostroff’s twice-rejected submission to the Arts Council contest “had many of those elements we wanted.”

“Thirty thousand goes to Ostroff,” Feiden explained. “The rest is for a structural engineer to review his work and the police detail required while it’s being installed. We’ve raised all but about 10 percent of [the $32,000], and we have an anonymous donor willing to offer matching grants to close the gap.”

*

Originally from Philadelphia, Sam Ostroff dropped out of Hampshire College in the late ‘90s and began working for himself as a welder of steel sculpture. He started by creating wild chairs that alternately looked like giant robot starfish and vastly complicated electric torture devices. Much of that output is buried at the back of his warehouse-like space in Florence’s Arts and Industry Building.

Those untamed initial pieces caught people’s attention, but then they started asking for coffee tables, railings, gates and doorways that wouldn’t overwhelm their homes. Soon customers also discovered that they really liked his visually assertive, enticing signs—rusty chrome tonnage that floated like cumulus over their shops and buildings. He now has two employees, a busy shop, and a home and family in Florence. He describes what he does as “psycho-organic metal sculpture.” He still adds his own conceptual flair and attention to detail to all he does, but the distinction between art and work for a client is clear to him.

“This piece is commissioned by the city,” Ostroff said. “There are some of my creative design elements woven into the mural, but really, it’s just meant to capture Northampton and downtown. And that’s it. I think most good art challenges viewers in some way. I’m not trying to challenge anyone or hide any deeper meaning here. That’s in stark contrast to what I might be trying to do with my artwork.”

Recent works that have been more inspired by his muse than by client requests include a robotic whale that will be on display in Nantucket and a stainless steel self-portrait of the artist with his head exploding. The second piece he says relates only in part to recent experiences with art contests.

*

When Ostroff’s bike bridge commission was announced in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in April, not everyone welcomed the news.

“Since when does [the Office of Planning and Development] have responsibility for artwork on the railroad bridge?” Mary Kasper asked in an April 22 email to Feiden after reading the paper. Her email was copied to Mayor David Narkewicz, City Council President Bill Dwight and another recipient.

“The very first murals on the bridge were initiated by Mayor Musante’s Office,” her email continued. “Since then every mural on the bridge (and every other public art project) has been selected by a Public Art Committee, through an open, public process and competition, run by the Northampton Arts Council. There’s a Public Art Plan from the 1990s that defines the Arts Council’s role in public art.

“As you know … in 2010, Sam Ostroff submitted what sounds like the same mural to a Public Art Committee for the other side of the railroad bridge,” Kasper wrote Feiden. “The Committee (of which I was a member) rejected his submission by a 5 to 2 vote. While you may not have agreed with the Committee’s decision, it was made by an Arts Council-appointed committee that included arts professionals as well as members of the public. We reached our decision through an open, fair, and very thoughtful process. Your ‘commissioning’ Sam Ostroff’s mural now seems as if you are trying to get around that committee’s decision, usurping an Arts Council function and circumventing what has always been a public and accountable process.”

She also expressed her concern that Feiden’s project was costing $15,000 more than the $17,000 Ostroff had quoted for their contest. And she wanted to know why the project had not been put out to bid.

“Putting artwork on the bridge is not the same as putting up signage,” she concluded. “It’s not a billboard. The bridge is civic space, and a highly visible one. I believe the public should have been and needs to be involved in deciding what goes there.”

*

Feiden’s email response tried to address some of Kasper’s concerns.

The bridge in question was the newly installed, public bike bridge, he pointed out, not the privately owned rail bridge where the Arts Council’s mural was. Since Feiden’s project was being paid for by private donations and not by public funding, it didn’t need to go out to bid. He emphasized, too, that there had been a lot of public process involved in deciding how the bridge would be adorned.

“[There was] community discussion throughout 2010,” he wrote, “when the Open Space, Recreation, and Multiuse Trail Plan wended its way through 10 public meetings, three public forums, and seven different community boards that adopted or endorsed the plan. One of the 13 objectives of that plan was to improve public awareness of these resources, including creating a signage and wayfinding program for rail trails.” He also explained, “When the bridges were first complete, we sat down with the Arts Council staff and offered them the three bridges as a canvas, if they wanted to coordinate the effort of finding funds and artists. As you noted, we have no involvement in railroad bridges, but we had everything to do with rail trail bridges. Given the Arts Council’s art skills, this could have been a great Arts Council project. Arts Council staff was initially interested, but didn’t have the resources to follow through.”

Kasper wasn’t satisfied. “Whether the mural should be called ‘art’ or a ‘wayfinding sign’ is immaterial; the visual effect is the same,” she responded in a subsequent email. “It is the very prominence of the public space you’re working in that calls for greater public involvement in the artist selection process.

“My problem remains that you have given one artist an opportunity that I believe should have been available to all artists in the wider arts community, through a public and open process, regardless of whether the Arts Council was involved.

“The requirements you have for a wayfinding sign … could be met successfully by any number of artists, including those who work in other mediums, not just by Mr. Ostroff. Artists are incredibly imaginative in figuring out how to translate their work from one medium to another; sculptors do it all the time. … Who knows what amazing, creative work would have been submitted, respecting all the requirements of the site and of your wider project?

“[A]nother reason to go through a public process in choosing an artist for a major project such as this is to avoid any appearance of favoritism. I’m sorry, Wayne, but I find this problematic.”

Around the same time as the announcement of the bridge commission, the Gazette also announced that Ostroff had been chosen to provide Northampton with seven signs greeting visitors to Northampton at the different entrances to the city. This project, called the Gateway Beautification Program, is being undertaken by a committee of residents.

Subsequent emails obtained by the Advocate and written by Jerry Budgar (an active member of the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association and a former city councilor) and the Chamber of Commerce’s Suzanne Beck indicate that there was concern that Kasper’s objections would affect fundraising for the gateway project. The emails state that Arts Council director Bob Cilman agreed with Kasper’s concerns, but after talking to Beck at length, both eventually agreed to not go public with their issues.

Asked if her position had changed since writing the emails to Feyden, Kasper recently wrote the Advocate, “I’ve been told it’s ‘wayfaring signage’, not public art. If it were public art, I think it should have been chosen through an open, public process.”

As of press time, Cilman had not responded to requests for comment.

*

Ostroff says his design for the bicycle bridge is fundamentally different from what he’d been planning for the rail bridge.

“Preserving the view for bicyclists from the bridge was critical,” Ostroff said. “The first design was all sheet metal silhouettes and it sort of masked the bridge. For the bike bridge, we needed to do a lot of the details—especially the architectural backgrounds—in outline, so you can see through them.”

The perspective of the mural is different, too. The old one was the view from the Post Office looking into town; this uses city hall as the point of reference. The new mural is also less literal than before—more of a collage of key area iconography. It includes design elements from Northampton’s downtown roof lines, a hot air balloon, and a stylized train pulling into the nearby train station, which is expected to return to service soon.

“The bike trail bridge isn’t as robust as the rail bridge,” Ostroff said, “so we had to make a more open design that would be lighter and make sure there would be no wind-load issues. I think the design challenges made for something more sculptural and interesting than what I’d proposed to the Arts Council.” Asked if this accounted for the higher price, Ostroff explained that in both cases he was working for a fee determined by what the client could pay and below what he’d typically charge. In either case, he said, profit was less of a motivator than having his work in a prominent location. “I’m going to drive under that sign for the rest of my life,” he said. “If every little piece of it is not fucking perfect, I’m going to know it. Other people might not, but I’m going to know it.”

Asked about the differences between working for a client and hoping to win a juried arts contest, Ostroff was thoughtful. “Even though there’s a good chance you might not win,” he continued, “you need to treat entering contests like any other job. You need to spend time and resources working out what’s possible and what you can commit to, and then you need to pitch that concept with plans, models and a presentation.”

Preparing a bid for a contest often takes time and attention away from an artist’s better-paying work. For most of the competing artists, contests are a financial loss. For the winner, it’s often a calculated risk in which he takes a loss up front in the hope that the quality of the work may catch the interest of future buyers.

If a client decides not to hire an artist, the reasons may be complex, but they boil down to a customer rejecting a product. In a juried public art contest, though, even when the criteria the judges are supposed to use in making their impartial decision are known, the reasoning behind a win or a loss can still be unclear and open to debate.

For the rail bridge mural, the original 2010 Request For Proposals from the Arts Council divided the 10 voting criteria in order of importance, totaling 100 points all together. Artistic Merit was listed first and counted for 20 points. Technical Competence/ Qualification was also 20 points. The other 60 points were spread amongst Feasibility, Community Impact, Budget, Support Materials, Integration to the Site, Maintenance, Longevity and Delivery. How the art looked was less important than proven ability and experience in installing and integrating big, long-lasting mural projects in heavily trafficked public spaces. Given that the first artists chosen were not able to complete the project and the second had his work dented weeks after it was installed, it would seem the criteria were either not followed or poorly assessed.

In discussing the safety of Ostroff’s installation, Wayne Feiden said the chief worry hadn’t been its weight (it’s made up of several components, at least a couple weighing between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds), but the wind load. A structural engineer from Greenfield had been reviewing Ostroff’s plans and work.

“You know how back before the 1950s, everything was overbuilt?” Feiden asked, describing how many older buildings are structurally sounder than their contemporary counterparts. “These days builders meet the code, but they don’t go too far over it. Well, Sam, he’s old-school.”•

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