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Tank Farm as Work of Art

Tank Farm as Work of Art
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Jean Maginnis, founder and executive director of the non-profit Maine Center for Creativity, was out bicycling in South Portland, Maine, a few years ago when it occurred to her that the large oil storage tanks along the South Portland waterfront would make great canvases for an artist. In 2005, she first floated the idea that has become Art All Around, a public art project aimed at turning the Sprague Energy tank farm, which is highly visible from Interstate-95 as it passes through Portland, into a landmark of Maine’s creative economy.

In response to an open call for proposals, Art All Around received 560 submissions from which a jury of seven art professionals has now selected five finalists. The finalists will each receive between $7,500 and $10,000 to complete their proposals and the eventual winner will receive an additional $20,000. The commissions paid to the artists are but a small fraction of the $1.2 million cost of the project, the majority of the money going to pay for 4,500 gallons of paint and the industrial painting contractors who will execute the winning designs on 260,000 square feet of storage tanks. To date, Maine Center for Creativity has raised just $200,000 for the project, which is supposed to be completed in 2011.

The finalists were announced on August 12. Catherine Callahan and Bret LeBleu, landscape architects from South Portland, have proposed painting the oil tanks with schematic designs based on aerial views of coastal Maine islands, the Portland waterfront, and the Greater Portland urban grid. Holger Friese, a multi-media artist from Berlin, Germany, would use portrait photographs broken up into pixels to create designs that would be abstract up close and resolved into faces at a distance. Jaime Gili, a Venezualian-born painter now living in London, and Nicole Langille, a graduate student in fine arts at Ohio State University, have both proposed colorful abstract designs. And Bo Nathan Newsome of Durham, N.C. and Sara Lambert Bloom of South Portland have made perhaps the most unusual proposal. Oboists, Newsome and Bloom would translate pieces of music into graphic musical notations to transform the Sprague Energy tanks into “Tunetowers.”

With 16 storage tanks slated for painting, it might have made sense to commission 16 different artists to turn Art All Around into an outdoot group show, but Maine Center for Creativity director Jean Maginnis says, “We wanted it whole, not broken into pieces.” Art All Around is designed to be seen from afar, a drive-by exhibition that will also be visible across the Fore River from Portland’s Western Promendade. The public will not be able to wander around the tank farm the way they would a museum or gallery.

The winner of the Art All Around competition will be announced later this fall. The international jury consists of Paco Barragn, an independent curator from Madrid; Mark H.C. Bessire, director of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine; Linda Earle, director of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture; Oliver Kielmayer, director of Kunsthalle Winterthur in Zurich; W. Weston LaFountain, a local art dealer and Maginnis? husband; Edward Leger, an art consultant from New Brunswick, Canada; Sener Pasalic, representing Sprague Energy; Alice Spencer, a Portland artist; and Elizabeth A. Salamone, a Portland architect.

Portland has a checkered history when it comes to public art, several recent projects having generated local controversy. A set of bronze figures outside the Portland Seadogs baseball stadium, for instance, was deemed by some to be politically incorrect because the family group appeared to be white and was thought by others to be of dubious artistic merit. An environmental installation in Boothby Square has never quite materialized as the artist envisioned and is regarded by many as an eyesore.

The paucity of good public art in Portland has become something of an embarrassment given that Maine’s largest city is home to a fine art museum, a good art school, many fine art galleries, and hundreds of artists. So a lot is riding on the success of Art All Around. Whether it becomes a symbol of a vibrant city or a creative flop will depend largely on whether Maine Center for Creativity can come up with a million dollars in the next couple of years.

“The reason for the Maine Center for Creativity is to create projects that will impact the reputation of Maine for creativity and innovation,” says Jean Maginnis. “We want to create an important art project to put Maine on the map.”

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Updated Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

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