Portland Center Stage, occupant of the renovated Portland Armory (now known as the Gerding Theater), has removed the sculptural marquee it commissioned from acclaimed local artist James M. Harrison for its 2006 opening.
The piece is called "Aiorema" after the Greek word for "God in the Machine". On his website, Harrison explains, "Originally this was a more literal concept- a crane used in ancient Greek theater for flying in the gods. I thought this was an appropriate way to link old and new. New Theater, Old Concept- Old Building, New Marquee, etc."
The sculpture is made from stacked layers of light diffusing acrylic pieces. It's shaped like a cloud at the base, and shaped like a star against the sky. The layers gradually transition from the one shape to the other shape.
Harrison first gained notice in Portland as part of the art-architecture collective Rigga. He's done sculpture for the Eastbank Esplanade as well as projects in Seattle, London and elsewhere. Those 'beehive' booths at the Gotham Building Tavern were also his, designed in partnership with the restaurant's co-owner, Michael Hebb, who has since moved on to Seattle (with tail betwen his legs).
Harrison was also the initial choice for the public art commission in Old Town/Chinatown that ultimately went to that dragon sculpture that was removed for offending locals, particularly Chinese-Americans. The light sculpture James made would have been a vastly better choice, but to the selection committee it apparently wasn't enough of a tchotchke, which ironically turned out to be the problem with the sculpture they did choose.
In the Aiorema light sculpture's place outside the Armory is a new sign that acts more as a traditional marquee. I spoke with a few people from Portland Center Stage about this, including artistic director Chris Coleman. What I sympathize with the most is their assertion that Portland Center Stage needed a sign that does more to draw people inside. It's perfectly reasonable for them to want a marquee that advertises the plays being put on and so forth.
However, it also seems that a major driving force in the removal of Harrison's sculpture besides the need for more explicit signage is that Portland Center Stage's leadership simply wasn't crazy about Aiorema. The message I heard from PCS was that they were big fans of Harrison's work before and after this one, but that they were disappointed by Aiorema. It wasn't tall enough. It had a funny shape. It was hard to clean.
I'd wondered if a compromise could be found in which the new marquee could stay at the entrance, but Harrison's light sculpture could be moved elsewhere, such as to the other side of the Gerding Theater along 10th Avenue. So far, though, my understanding is that Aiorema will not be relocated. Depending on whom you talk to, it seems to be a board member who doesn't like Aiorema, or a member of PCS in-house leadership. But for whatever reason, they're just not into it.
This brings up an important question. PCS paid Harrison $45,000 for the sculpture (not a lot for that kind of piece but still a large chunk of change), and they own it. They can do whatever they want with Aiorema, including remove it or even destroy it. PCS hasn't done the latter; the sculpture is in storage at the theater. But in the year or two that the sculpture has been standing and glowing on 11th Street, I and many others have developed a fondness for it. What recourse do fans of public artwork have when the client decides they don't like a piece that we do? I also wondered if somehow the sculpture could be altered to remove the name 'Portland Center Stage'. Heck, why not move it to Chinatown where the remains of that removed dragon sculpture sit pitifully?
I also think PCS's need for a bigger, more obvious sign speaks to the architecture of the Gerding Theater. Historic preservation laws would have prevented a major alteration of the Armory, and we might not have wanted that anyway. But in transitioning from an armory to a welcoming public theater, I don't think the architects or client solved the issue of what a massive barrier exists there. One of the exciting aspects of the Gerding Theater was supposed to be that it acted as a people magnet and as a place to congregate even when there wasn't theater showing: a viable public space. I don't the theater does that at all. It's a very nice theater inside, but it still feels like an armory on the outside. And armories were explicitly built to forcefully keep people out.
On top of that, the building's entrance was switched from the 10th Avenue side, where there's a big curving architectural entryway, to the 11th Avenue side. That means they're swimming against the current, so to speak, in directing people into the building. When you make a move like that, you need big obvious, airport-like signage to show people the way.
Harrison's piece isn't right for that mission. But however justified PCS is removing Aiorema, either legally or morally, I think they ought to bring Harrison's fine work back into the public realm where it belongs.