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Courtyard Cooperation

WHEN asked to name a public art installation, some people might think of Claes Oldenburg's ``Giant Clothespin'' in downtown Philadelphia, or perhaps Richard Serra's ``Tilted Arc,'' the controversial sculpture that was removed from New York City's Federal Plaza. The people in Waterboro, Maine, will immediately think of an installation by artist Bill Coyne at the local high school, thanks to a successful state program that brings together art, artists, and the community.

Since 1979, Maine law has stipulated that 1 percent of construction costs for new or renovated state-funded public buildings be set aside for artwork. Although 24 states have similar legislation, Maine's public art program is unusual in that public schools are eligible for these funds. ``In fact,'' according to program director Peter Simmons, ``of the 90 projects completed since the program began, 60 percent have been in public schools.''

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Waterboro (pop., 4,000) and five other towns in southern Maine are served by Massabesic High School. Opened in 1969 with 400 students, it has since doubled in size. Along with its building expansion program, and under the provisions of the Percent for Art Act, the school received a $25,000 appropriation for artwork.

The art-selection process began in June 1986. Over two years later it ended with the transformation of an empty 5,000-square-foot courtyard into a sculptural environment, and the transformation of the student body and administration into public-art enthusiasts.

The Percent for Art program is administered by the Maine Arts Commission, which assigns a site coordinator to each project. This was my role. I worked with an art-selection committee consisting of seven voting members - the project architect, three arts professionals, and three community members. The community members were Massabesic High School's assistant principal, art teacher, and building committee chair.

As site coordinator, I was responsible for providing the committee with accurate information regarding the Percent for Art law. Beyond that, it is important to see that the committee functioned well as a group.

In meetings, the arts professionals needed to talk about art in a straightforward manner, understandable to community members. Community members needed to clearly convey the history and values of the citizens they represent. The architect provided technical assistance.

On my way to that first June meeting, I stopped for directions near Waterboro and was shown a shortcut to the high school. Driving down a winding tree-lined road, I reviewed the committee members' names and wondered how everyone would get along.

The first meeting went smoothly - they often do. People are usually on their best behavior and it's too early to tell what the character of the group will be. It was clear, however, that this school had a thriving art program. The school's new building addition included a large, well-equipped art room, where we usually held our meetings.

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The next two day-long meetings revealed that there were no shy people in the group. The overwhelming task of reviewing over 1,000 slides from the state's artist registry was faced with determination and a healthy sense of humor.

One committee member noticed a change within the group, commenting that the more acquainted with art the community members became the more open and responsive they were. The arts professionals changed as well. ``We opened ourselves to the `eyes' of the community,'' said artist and art educator Barbara Janoff, ``and this burgeoning respect for others' points of view is what helped the committee click.''

In August, three Maine sculptors were asked to visit the school and then submit site-specific proposals for an open-air courtyard surrounded by classrooms. The space, accessible from both the library and a corridor, was empty except for one scrubby tree.

Everyone was eager to see the proposals and speak with the artists individually at a meeting in mid-November. But after the first two interviews, the committee seemed unenthusiastic. They didn't care for one proposal; they were ambivalent about another, and skeptical of the third.

Then Bill Coyne entered the room, bringing a detailed maquette and a plain black notebook in which he had written his ideas about the project. Rather than simply installing an ``art object'' in the space, he proposed treating the entire courtyard as a sculptural environment using the tradition of a New England town common as his inspiration.

He spoke eloquently but simply. After he left, no one wanted to be the first to speak. Finally, someone ended the long silence, saying, ``I want to install him in the courtyard!'' Relieved, everyone laughed in agreement. The consensus was clear.

As is often the case with public-art projects, nearly two years went by between the November 1986 meeting and the courtyard installation. During this time proposal modifications were made, contract negotiations took place, and approval was obtained from other state agencies. Coyne describes it as ``time contributed to my getting to know the community. The work I did is really an expression of their spirit and geography.''

IN the spring, the courtyard blooms with flowering trees and shrubs. A low, L-shaped stone wall gently defines the space. Art teacher Sheila Clough describes the work as a ``living, growing piece ... an ever-changing one.'' The graduating class of 1989 chose lighting for the courtyard as its gift to the school.

Students posed for yearbook photographs in the courtyard, and the space is open to students on a regular basis. This pleases Bill Coyne who writes, ``I tried to give the `placeness' away to those who visit, not collect it for myself.''

It is hard to think of a better definition of public art. The author was a project coordinator for Maine's Percent for Art program. She currently works for the Colorado Council for the Arts and Humanities.

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