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Maine city casts off spurned sculpture

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The sculpture may have been doomed from the start.

In 2006, Portland, Maine, installed "Tracing the Fore," a series of wavy-edged stainless-steel panels, in a grassy area in the middle of Boothby Square, a cobblestone crossroad a few blocks from the harbor. The city paid about $135,000 for it.

Shauna Gillies-Smith, the landscape artist who created it, wanted tall grasses to grow and billow around the waves, creating a watery effect to evoke the city’s nautical history.

But the grass never took the way it was meant to.

Shawn McCarthy owns the Dock Fore bar, which overlooked the sculpture. He described how weeds overran the grass, teenagers raced their bikes between the panels and tourists passing in duck boats laughed at the sculpture.

"Oh, God, it was all we could see," McCarthy said. "In one way it was a conversation piece, but the conversation just was never positive."

"Tracing the Fore" was removed last week, pulled from the ground by a big yellow excavator as passers-by cheered and complimented members of the removal crew on their efforts.

"I wouldn’t say this is a common phenomenon," Harriet F. Senie, director of museum studies at City College in New York, said of the deacquisition in an email. "But it does happen, and there is usually more than one back story."

Gillies-Smith and the city said no one had been prepared for the level of maintenance the artwork required. Someone regularly needed to get between the panels and pull out the weeds. The city looked into replacing the grass, contracting out the maintenance, even moving the sculpture. But there was little political will to save it.

"It definitely was frustrating and disappointing," said Gillies-Smith, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. "At the same time, it also coincided with a challenging time in our economy. I can see that, from the city’s perspective, they may well not have had the resources at this time to do a little bit of extra work."

Alex Jaegerman, Portland’s planning division director, said money was not the issue. He had a petition on his desk with about 150 signatures calling for the sculpture’s removal.

It was too late to save the sculpture, he said, because too many people simply hated it.

"They called it ‘Saw Blades’ and ‘Razorblades,"’ Jaegerman said. "There was a strong sentiment among the community that they didn’t like the piece fundamentally."

After a series of votes and deacquisition hearings over the past year, the sculpture was gone by Wednesday, sold for $100 to a local collector who planned to install it privately. The collector also paid about $9,000 to have it removed.

To celebrate, McCarthy threw an "Erasing the Fore" party at his bar, with discounted drinks.

Still, Scott Tubby, a painter who manages the George Anderson Gallery, which overlooks what is now an empty space on Boothby Square, was remorseful about the loss of a sculpture he had quietly appreciated. He wondered what would go there next.

"Flowers would be nice," Tubby said. "I’m sure public art isn’t going to be placed there."

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