AUGUSTA — Colorfully painted steps in downtown Augusta could lead to the creation of a city arts commission to answer the potentially sticky question of what is appropriate public art.

Along with a new downtown mural, the stairs from Commercial Street to Oak Street, shown June 16, have been painted with a quote from a Stephen King book. From bottom to top, the quote from “The Shawshank Redemption” reads, “Remember hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

No one so far has opposed the rainbow-colored steps that Augusta Downtown Alliance volunteers painted recently on a stairway between Commercial and Oak streets, according to City Manager William Bridgeo.

The colorful steps and another seemingly noncontroversial proposal to paint another downtown stairway, however, have prompted city officials to ask about the process for assessing art projects on city property.

Since nothing is in place to evaluate art proposed for city-owned locations, Bridgeo and other city employees review such requests before granting or denying permission.

Mayor David Rollins said the city needs a public art commission to review requests for art in public places and determine its appropriateness.

“If there is not a process, I think there should be a process,” Rollins said, while discussing the issue and the Augusta Downtown Alliance’s efforts to bring more art to the downtown.

“We certainly like the color and excitement and all the stuff (the Downtown Alliance) is generating, but art is a broad category. And people change. Boards change. Directors change. I think there should be some kind of review process.”

Rollins said the downtown step-painting project, which also included a an inspirational Stephen King quote — “Remember hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies” — was done with the permission of city staff.

Rollins noted a large mural painted on a downtown Commercial Street building, also an Augusta Downtown Alliance project, is on private property and not subject to review by city officials.

Simon Quist, left, Lanie Spencer, Joe Massey and David Malia discuss the mural at 216 Water St. in Augusta on June 15. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

Bridgeo said neither he nor other members of the city staff want to be put in the position of judging art and whether it is appropriate for display on city property.

“No member of the city staff, from the city manager to department heads to the parks and recreation director or anybody else, wants to be responsible for making decisions about the appropriateness of a proposed piece of art,” Bridgeo said. “Thus, the need for an arts committee or commission to weigh in on those things.

“With the stairs, the initial proposal was really just a rainbow color for the stairs to brighten it up, and it seems so innocuous. But as it advances, if it becomes a little more artistic, then I anticipate all members of the staff would welcome the ability to refer it somewhere for a ‘yea’ or ‘nay.'”

Bridgeo said he planned to research the issue and come back to councilors in about a month with information on forming an arts commission.

Meanwhile, Bridgeo said he felt comfortable — unless councilors objected — giving the go-ahead to a proposal from Central Church at 20 Mission Ave. to paint more stairs. He said any big proposals for public art that come to the city before an arts commission is created would be brought to city councilors for review.

Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said members of Central Church approached the organization about a community service project. They proposed to paint a set of steps from the waterfront off Front Street, near the Olde Federal Building, to Water Street. They are looking to use “teal colors” with mountains and a quote — “Let our hope rise above the mountains in our lives.”

“I asked them for nothing political, nothing religious. Just a secular quote, and that’s what they came up with and submitted to us,” Hall said of the church’s proposal. “I think it would make an impact on Front Street, in terms of looks. They’ve told me they intend to maintain it and update it, as needed. And they’re covering the cost of all the supplies.”

At-Large Councilor Darek Grant said the city’s recently revised comprehensive plan encourages the development of an arts district, and the city should continue to encourage more art downtown.

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