In Newport, A Public Art Project Moves Past Protests

Jun 1, 2013

The newly redesigned Queen Anne Square officially opened to the public Friday in downtown Newport. The public park’s new look is thanks to well-known artist and architect Maya Lin. But the project faced plenty of protest.

Tobacco heiress Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation first transformed Queen Anne Square in the heart of downtown Newport in the early 1970s. But since then, foundation staff say the park has gone downhill. So they proposed a new design – something that would honor Duke’s memory and Newport’s history while creating a more inviting public space.  That job went to Vietnam memorial designer Maya Lin.

“To me it was just a pleasure to take a park I would say was underutilized and turn it to something that’s really welcoming to the community.”

Lin turned up for the park’s dedication, along with a panoply of local officials and a big crowd of observers. Underscoring the event on a hot, sunny day – bagpipe, and a cadre of revolutionary soldiers with muskets.

Community members and a group called “Citizens for Queen Anne Square” opposed the project from the beginning. At city council meetings, in dozens of letters to editors, and online, protestors called the redesign barbaric. A needless expenditure. A joke. Antithetical to everything Doris Duke stood for. But on this day, a lone protester stood on Thames Street, holding a handmade sign. The sign’s holder, Michael Yazel, who goes by Captain Yazu, says the park project was a waste of money.

“I think they should have left it alone. It was fine the way it was. It may have needed a few different plantings, a little more of that, and maybe a park bench or two.”

But artist Maya Lin incorporated much more in an installation she calls “The Meeting Room.’ Three stone foundations laid throughout the park serve as gathering spaces. Their inspiration, buildings that once stood on the site throughout Newport’s history. Historic quotes about colonial life, plus a quote from Rhode Island’s 350-year-old charter are chiseled into the native and recycled stones. Park lighting is meant to evoke the feel of antique lamplight. And landscapers planted 24 native and historically significant trees. There’s a nod to the future, Lin says, in the lines of her modern design, and in the park’s free WiFi.

Given the attention to Newport’s history, and the Lin says she wasn’t expecting the level of public controversy surrounding her design.

“Parks, basically people welcome in, and this one surprised a lot of us that it got so emotional. But I was out here once when some of the people were asking for signatures saying, ‘They’re coming in here, they’re tearing down all the trees, and they’re paving it over.’ I would have signed that petition.”

The park hasn’t been paved over. All the trees weren’t torn down. After the ceremony, as the drone of a bagpipe died down, Lin joined Governor Lincoln Chafee to reflect on the process.

“From an artist’s point of view, in a funny way, you kind of want to welcome open comments," said Lin. "And if you’re going to name a piece 'The Meeting Room,’ you’d better invite lively debate in! And I always would figure Rhode Island is a pretty lively state, so, bring it on a little bit!”

“It’s in the charter," Chafee said. "'Lively experiment.'"

“Lively experiment!” Lin chimed in.

Now, the next lively experiment will be to find out whether the community embraces the redesigned park or keeps the debate alive.