What is it? Modernism and public art at Baltimore’s public schools


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By Eli Pousson, Director of Preservation and Outreach for Baltimore Heritage, with contributions from Ryan Patterson, Public Art Administration for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

Baltimore’s public schools are home to over 120 public art commissions—most of these works tied to a local boom in school building construction during the 1960s and 1970s. While some are the work of nationally known modern artists and designers, like Michio Ihara, Gyorgy Kepes, and Harry Bertoia, others are the work of artists, architects and designers with a regional practice or local following; some of whom had few commissions outside of Baltimore, or no public work outside of these midcentury school buildings.

Bronze and welded copper sculpture (1969) by Harry Bertoia in the courtyard at the now closed Lake Clifton High School. Credit: Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, Julie Stovall Lauver (photographer)

Today, over sixty years after Baltimore’s public art program began, few of the city’s students or teachers know the history of these buildings or artworks, who made them, and how they came to be. Can they still fulfill their early promise to improve the lives of Baltimore’s children? Finding new meaning in these works—making sure they are more than just “plop art” to their school communities—is critical to build support for their preservation. Indeed, in their present obscurity, and a general loss of institutional memory, more than forty of these artworks have been lost, stolen, or seriously damaged, while many others, if not all of those remaining face serious maintenance needs. A new city and state plan to restore, refurbish, or rebuild Baltimore’s aging midcentury school buildings inspires some hope that these works can be restored and renewed for a new generation of students.

Public art and Baltimore’s school buildings have a long shared history. In 1898, Johns Hopkins University president Daniel C. Gilman spoke before the Public School Teachers' Association calling for more art in schools, suggesting that “pictures with some meaning to them… would teach the children something and promote study and research.” The following year, Gilman helped establish the Baltimore Municipal Arts Society whose early efforts focused on the “ornamentation” of the city’s public schools.

This theme—assigning a purpose to public art beyond just beauty—remained relevant in 1964 when Baltimore established their 1% for public art program. The program took inspiration from a 1959 Philadelphia ordinance that became a national model for funding public artwork by setting aside funds from the cost of public construction projects.

In both Baltimore and Philadelphia, the program was, in part, a reaction to the austere design of modern public buildings erected by cash-strapped local governments in the years after WWII. For example, in October 1960, architects and critics in Baltimore called local school buildings “dull and unimaginative” ("Anything which doesn't contribute to holding up a roof is considered a frill." claimed visiting designer Philip H. Hiss). Local architect Charles H. Richter, Jr. went even farther; suggesting that the poor design of new schools contributed to "blight in the city" and "encouraged juvenile delinquency." Adolph Katz, reporting on Philadelphia’s public art program for the Sun in May 1963, described the program as an "attack on the premise that in modern architecture only functionalism counts; that strict, austere utilitarianism, so to speak, breeds its own esthetics."

But for many supporters, public art meant more than just the “beautification” or “ornamentation” of public buildings. Baltimore resident Mary N. Miller, wrote to the Sun to support the proposed program in 1963, with the hope that public art could inspire students: "if we improved our schools with art and the students were made aware of their beauty, they would take pride in their schools", closing her letter, "We can live without art, but not so well."

Untitled cast aluminum wall reliefs (1968) by Jordi Bonet at the entrance to Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West (formerly Walbrook High School). Credit: Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, Julie Stovall Lauver (photographer)

The Civic Design Commission charged with enacting the new ordinance faced significant challenges in fulfilling this optimistic vision. School administrators and elected officials repeatedly worked to avoid the new requirements, and in the eyes of those making the decisions, and local residents, not all “art” was created equal. In January 1965, the school board unsuccessfully petitioned the commission to exempt a new $800,000 school project from the law. In 1968, the city comptroller called a new $40,000 sculpture by Canadian sculptor Jordi Bonet—a large scale cast aluminum relief for Walbrook High School—"a waste of public funds at a time when the city is hard-pressed for money to provide essential services."

When the program began, school architects selected artists with little input from local residents. One of the first schools built with public artworks under the program was Eutaw Elementary School (designed by local firm of Marshall and Lewis which opened in 1967. The new school building featured a 30-foot long abstract mural in the kindergarten painted by Washington artist William Woodward and a wall-mounted bronze sculpture by local artist Thomas Hoffmaster. Born in Baltimore in 1923, Thomas Hoffmaster started taking classes at the Maryland Institute when he was just 13. He earned a degree in biology from Johns Hopkins University and continued on to a career as a medical artist and photographer. His work at Eutaw Elementary School met with some criticism, however, as constant critic of the school art program Phoebe Stanton later remarked the "rather expensive" work resembled "nothing so much as magnified cheap jewelry". While it remains easy for someone not acquainted with Hoffmaster’s biography or practice to view the sculpture as an abstract flotsam that is very “dated” or “of it’s time”, to think about how the artists experience in medical illustration and biology may have informed the work would bring new context to the imagination of a child viewing the work and learning about the artist.

Detail of the untitled bronze sculpture (1967) by Thomas F. Hoffmaster at Eutaw Marshburn Elementary School. Credit: Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, Julie Stovall Lauver (photographer)




Installation of stained glass windows in the library and corridors, unknown title (1971) by György Kepes at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School. Credit: Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, Julie Stovall Lauver (photographer)

In other cases, the artist and architect created works with both immediate and enduring appeal. For the $3.5 million 1971 addition to Commodore John Rodgers Elementary School in southeast Baltimore, architect George Van Fosen Schwab sought out Gyorgy Kepes, a Hungarian-born artist and educator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Kepes created a colorful stained glass installation for the school library and the bridges connecting the addition to the original school building. The public art helped to cement the school’s reputation as a "symbol of neighborhood renewal"—especially significant as it was the city’s relatively few desegregated schools.

An untitled sculptural fountain (1972), popularly known as a brutalist crab, by Edmund Whiting at Federal Hill Preparatory School. Credit: Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, Julie Stovall Lauver (photographer)

Some locals received these modernist works with skepticism. In December 1975, the Sun invited students from Federal Hill Elementary School to speculate on the meaning of the sculptural fountain installed at the school in 1972:

The kids think it looks like a rabbit, a robot, a tree, an iceberg. Or maybe a monster, an airplane or a king surrounded by his court. And even though some parents and community leaders in South Baltimore would rather the abstract bronze fountain in front of Federal Hill Elementary School be somewhere else far away, the children who go to the school seem to like the sculpture.

The fountain is the work of Edmund Whiting (1918-1975), former chairman of the Art Department at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Mary Frances Garland, the president of the South Baltimore Community Council, called the piece, "just ugly and dangerous." Henry Berge, son of noted Baltimore sculpture Edward Berge, who designed a number of public artworks at Baltimore public housing projects in the 1940s, complained about the abstract designs (and the selection process) in February 1972:

“They hire only "far-out" artists and sculptors and only a favored few of those... The traditionalists are ruthlessly excluded. It is my personal but unprovable opinion that this is done deliberately to antagonize the public to force repeal of that law.”

Today, Whiting’s untitled sculpture is affectionately seen as a brutalist “crab”—a flawed but loveable mascot for the school.

Controversy over the program came to head in 1973 when Baltimore City Councilman Emerson Julian introduced a bill to exempt city schools from the 1 per cent program which would "effectively abolish the system" since most of the works created up to that point were created for city schools. City planners, artists, and others stepped up to defend the program and the bill failed.

When the creation of new works finally slowed in the late 1970s, it was not the popular reaction against modernist public art—exemplified by debates over George Sugarman’s Baltimore Federal (1977) and Tilted Arc (1981)—that brought it about. Instead, Baltimore simply required fewer new school buildings. Between 1972 and 1976, the city school population dropped by over 27,000 students and, overall, the city's population dropped from 905,787 in 1970 to 786,741 in 1980—the largest single decade decline since the city's population peaked in 1950.

One of four components to Caterpillar (1976) by Norman Carlberg at Dallas F. Nichols, Sr. Elementary School. Credit: Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, Julie Stovall Lauver (photographer)

Looking back on the legacy of this period, some of the most abstract work, which seemed so hard for the public to swallow at the time of creation, has the most relevance to the present. Norman Carlberg’s Caterpillar (1976), a COR-TEN steel sculpture at Dallas Nichols Elementary School, is an example of what the artist termed "modular constructivism", inspired by his studies with Josef Albers at the Yale School of Art and Architecture. The sculpture uses repeating curved geometric forms in a complex arrangement that invites curiosity and welcomes play.