Leopold Rejects Kids' Art Display

Refusing to display the art montage, shown in a mock-up, was described as "an affront to the entire community."
Refusing to display the art montage, shown in a mock-up, was described as "an affront to the entire community." (Artwalk)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold is refusing to go forward with plans to mount artwork created by local children on the government building that houses his office, calling it inappropriate and too busy.

His decision drew sharp criticism yesterday from leaders in Annapolis's African American community, who called it an insult to those children who most need encouragement.

The montage created by a local artist depicts an African American man breaking out of chains with the word "Freedom" above his head and includes smaller pieces created by inner-city children. A previous county administration agreed in 2006 to place the mural on the building. But in recent weeks, Leopold (R) saw the final product and deemed it inappropriate for such display.

Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, called the move "a broken promise" and "an affront to the entire community."

Leopold defended his decision, pointing out that he was a painter earlier in life and does not believe in censorship. He noted that he had agreed to the display based on an early mock-up that looked better than the final product.

He said the display, overall, is "too busy to the eye."

He also said mounting art on the side of the government building would create a bad precedent: "Then, other groups will come forward and say, 'Why not allow our expression of art to be displayed on the side of the building?' "

The display was to be one of six around town depicting parts of Annapolis history. The others are on the Naval Academy perimeter wall, the harbor master's building, a city park fence, a bank building and a parking lot wall.

Organizers selected a large blank brick wall of the Arundel Center for art related to the city's black history because it faces Clay Street, a historically black neighborhood. To spearhead the project, organizers chose George "Lassie" Belt, a local black artist.

Belt said he drew the black man breaking out of chains after months of soul-searching. "I grew up here and seen the struggles people go through," he said. "This was what I felt."

Belt worked with children from Clay Street because, he said, "I wanted to show that in a community riddled with shootings, drugs and alcohol, there are kids here with talent, morals and value. And I wanted kids to know, too, that they had worth and aren't trapped in this situation."

Leopold said he has offered to mount a single piece of art, instead of a montage, for one rather than three years and to put the children's pieces of art inside the Arundel Center. But organizers who are footing the $150,000 bill for the six-site project say that would not be long enough to justify the cost and fewer people would see the children's art.

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