Nothing to See Here

Enough already with Boston’s boring, old, and stodgy public art.

By Max Grinnell | Boston Magazine |

Boston’s public art was pretty great in the first half of the 1900s. Back then, the Boston Art Commission (BAC) was putting up bronze sculptures around the city, including the Commodore John Barry Memorial and the Paul Revere statue in the North End. Founded in 1890, the BAC is responsible for more than 80 bronze artworks—most of them celebrating our role in the American Revolution. Those pieces clearly have tremendous historical and cultural significance, but you can only take so many pictures of yet another statue of a white guy holding a musket or sitting on a horse before you move on. In fact, with the exception of Paul Revere, I bet that most locals couldn’t identify any of these works—or, for that matter, a single piece of public art in Boston.

So what has the Boston Art Commission been up to lately? Not much. In 2010 they commissioned such things as three bike racks in Mission Hill and a curving wire-mesh fence around a Jamaica Plain tennis court. That same year, they also unveiled a bronze statue outside Fenway of Ted Williams, then four more Fenway statues of “The Teammates” (Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams, again). Yes, more bronze statues!

I tried to find out what’s going on with the BAC and Boston’s public art in general, but no one wanted to talk. I called a dozen prominent figures in Boston’s art community. Half didn’t bother to call me back, while the other half said they were not interested at all in commenting on the matter, for fear of pissing in the Frog Pond (or, perhaps, missing and hitting the bronze Make Way for Ducklings statues). “Traditional, representational art does well in Boston,” one prominent arts insider told me, after I promised anonymity. “Anything else is a bit of a hard sell, especially in the public realm.” But that’s the idea: Public art is supposed to engage, delight, provoke, and push us to think in new ways.

  • Robert Fleming

    Max: There have been a series of art installations in Boston’s neighborhoods over the last 20 years Including the art fountains in Mission Hill, the “Judge’ in Dudley Square, the “Sleeping Moon” in Peabody Square, the Gateway art pieces in Mattapan Square and those in Harriet Tubman Square in the South End to name a few that have very little in common with those older works you mentioned. You should check them out when you get the chance.

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