Royal Oak Commission Decides Public Art Near Memorial Can Stay

Royal Oak Commission Decides Public Art Near Memorial Can Stay

(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 13, 2018)

Royal Oak, MI -Composition is Blue is a sculpture which changes appearance depending on the angle that it’s viewed.  The lines and circles seem to shift in a way that Artist Mark Beltchenko says is the point.  “If only we were able to approach our daily lives from multiple perspectives,” he said as he addressed the packed Royal Oak City Commission Chamber Monday night in defense of his work and it’s placement in the city.

The sculpture sits on the lawn near the Library, about 100 feet from the Veteran’s Memorial Plaza, also on the City property.  It is one of many pieces of public art erected as part of the Art Explored program curated by the city’s Commission for the Arts. Yet the piece has sparked controversy among some veterans who either want the land to remain free of art, or to have art that is specifically Veteran-themed.

“That piece does not say anything about our Veterans,” said Carol Hennesey who volunteers with several Veteran-related groups and programs.  “This is a sacred place for our Veterans and our families… The Royal Oak Memorial Society did not work to have the land dedicated so it could be used for non-Veteran related art.”  The Memorial Association, the VFW and the Eagles have asked officials to have the art moved elsewhere.

Public comment came from Veterans who were offended by placement of art so close to the memorial, and others who defended the freedom of expression that soldiers fought and died for.

Composition in Blue is the third sculpture placed on the property since a 2007 ordinance was approved by voters designated land for the Memorial.  The lawn around the Memorial has also been used, without mass objection, for community concerts, employee picnics, political demonstrations, library and youth activities.  There are other pieces of art nearby, as well as children’s play equipment.

Commissioners Randy LaVasseur, Melanie Macey and Kim Gibbs asked that the issue of discussing Composition in Blue be placed on the agenda.

City Attorney David Gillam explained that the ordinance “designated” the area as the place for the memorial, but it did not “dedicate” it.  Dedicating it would mean exclusive use, designating it meant that it was a permissible location that did not imply sole use.

LaVasseur made a motion to direct staff to look at alternative location for the sculpture and Gibbs was the only other affirmative vote.  Macy explained her reasons for wanting the discussion brought forward so that a legal opinion could be made and the matter clarified for the public.

“I love the fact that the area has been used for many years,” she said. “That’s bringing that War Memorial into things we do everyday.  When I think about what the War Memorial means, these names that are on there, is that you are part of our lives.”

Commissioner Kyle DuBac supported keeping the sculpture in place through the end of the contract. “Everyone in Royal Oak owns this space. The beautiful green space belongs to all of us,” he said.

Commissioner Sharlan Douglas noted that there was not just passion on the part of Veterans, but also on the part of the volunteers of the Arts Commission.  “Representing both these groups of volunteers is not a mutually exclusive thing,” she said.

Both Commissioners Patricia Paruch and Macey spoke of the role of the Arts Commission. Paruch noted that in other cities, such as Grand Rapids, Battle Creek and Chicago, “arts commissions are independent from politicians.”

Macey said “We have a Commission of the Arts because we don’t have to spend our time up here figuring out what piece of art goes where.”

Mayor Michael Fournier also spoke of the Commission for the Arts’ role as a public body.  “We have a process,” he said, adding that Composition in Blue is scheduled to be removed Aug. 31 and that people who want to have different pieces of art displayed can submit an application and go through the process.

Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the agenda was set to “discuss” the artwork, not specifically to discuss it’s removal.




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