There is a lingering question in the Boston air about what makes a great American city. What is it, beyond our proud history of patriots, abolitionists, world class universities, our sports teams and a great mayor ending his long tenure? We have been singled out to define ourselves, as the city recovers from the deadly Marathon bombings. The recovery is taking place in public view, and our public spaces and public sculptures are part of the conversation about who we are. Sculpture, in particular, has the longest memory of all the arts, is a visible link to the heroism of the past and feeds our need for heroism in the present. In Copley Square, the beautiful, old buildings and the bronze sculptures from the last century stand sentinel, guarding the borders of the marathon bombing memorial. Great cities deserve great sculptures: Vivid acts of the imagination, enduring and transcendent, that humanize the sometimes anonymous and commercial urban landscape.
Now is a time for bold dreams and imagining. Step up, Boston. Embrace a big idea, a sculpture park worthy of a world-class destination. Let’s call it the largest urban sculpture park in the country. The open space is there and waiting. A sculpture park can offer a layered cultural history wide open to possibility. Sculptors use three-dimensional form to give the world metaphors, using modern tools, computers, laser technology , LED lights and hammer and tongs. They make visible and they make knowable the ineffable things of the spirit. They can bring wit and fancy and playfulness to the drab utility of public spaces. They can enliven with humor, invite contemplation, or tell stories that need telling.
Last year on the Greenway, there were temporary installations of sculptures from the deCordova Museum, fanciful gourd forms on a huge, magical scale. A bronze sculpture of Gandhi was brought in by the Occupy demonstrators ,bringing a curious, powerful moral authority to the scene. Currently on the Christian Science Plaza, the Boston Sculptors have installed 30 works in a show that Jen Mergel, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, calls a “convergence of imagination and civic pride that shows what public art can do for our city.”
Sculptures stay in the world to be viewed always, not like movies and plays that leave town, or books that go back on the shelf. Public sculptures become part of a city’s unconscious: these old, worn, massive forms sit, stand, wave and lie down in our midst like indispensible family members. They are the rooted part of our collective life, more like flowers in the public garden, vulnerable in their beauty, easy prey to thoughtlessness but full of a generosity of spirit and largesse, reminding us of what matters most, what we hold most sacred. They help us face the irrationality of the world and they help us find courage, something we have needed this spring in Boston. We have our immortal longings and sculpture is often their vehicle and their emblem.
This city has a chance now for a defining moment, an enduring reinvention, born of a public trauma. It is not a time to be timid and parochial. Seize the day, Boston! Think big! Bright lights and colors! New bronze and granite! Let a new era for public sculpture begin.
Murray Dewart is co-founder of Boston Sculptors. Dennis Kois is director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.