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Steinbeck Park’s New Tenant Has a History

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 04:35
The statue of John Steinbeck is lifesize and realistic, creating a sense of presence, even when Steinbeck Park is empty.
Christopher Gangemi

The mystery over a painted bronze statue of John Steinbeck and his dog Charley, which suddenly appeared in Sag Harbor’s Steinbeck Park this week, has been solved. 

It turns out that the village approved the statue way back in 2016. Sandra Schroeder, who was the mayor then, welcomed its funding in a letter to the Century Arts Foundation, a private foundation in Sag Harbor whose grantees have included Bay Street Theater and the Whaling Museum, saying that “. . . the Village of Sag Harbor has agreed to accept the donation by Century Arts Foundation of the statue of John Steinbeck created by the sculptor Seward Johnson.” 

Titled “Assistant Editor,” it depicts a larger-than-life Mr. Steinbeck (who was six feet tall), pen and pad in hand, sitting on a bench, seemingly consulting Charley as he writes. 

“This was something that was promised in the past and I’m following through on Mayor Schroeder’s promise,” said Mayor Thomas Gardella in a phone call. “It’s art. It’s subjective. You might think it’s beautiful, someone else might think it’s horrendous. We can go back and forth with this. If someone came to the village board now, there would be a discussion.” 

Not everyone is enamored of the stature, nor is it clear whether a review process exists in the village for art being placed in public spaces. “If there’s not, there should be a public comment process for that sort of thing,” said Steve Williams, chairman of the board of historic preservation and architectural review. 

“No large sculptures should be installed in Sag Harbor’s public parks without proper notice, hearings, and public comment,” said April Gornik, an artist, via text. “The painted bronze figures that were quietly installed in Steinbeck Park do not sufficiently reflect the park’s inspirational namesake. God help us if this opens the door to any old deaccessioning art collector or artist who wants to do a similar thing.” 

Nor is it immediately clear why it took nearly eight years for the statue to be placed. Mayor Gardella said a friend had introduced him to Nicholas Wentworth of North Haven, president of the Century Arts Foundation. “It had been sitting in [Mr. Wentworth’s] backyard for a couple of years,” said the mayor. “He showed me paperwork that the village had approved the sculpture with the stipulation that it be placed in Steinbeck Park.” 

Ms. Schroeder’s letter is actually not that specific, saying only that the statue should be placed “in a suitable public space” in the village. 

In August 2014, the foundation approached the John Jermain Memorial Library about placing the sculpture there. “While there was some interest, we were still pretty deep in construction, without a clear end date,” wrote Catherine Creedon, who was the executive director of the library at the time. “I think at that point the foundation considered other possible sites, eventually working something out with the village.” 

Jim Larocca, a village trustee in 2016, later mayor, said he too recalled the statue being in Mr. Wentworth’s backyard. “He had it in a shed near his swimming pool. I was sort of open to it. As mayor, I didn’t do anything about the appearance of the park that didn’t involve Ed Hollander. The answer we gave Mr. Wentworth was that we’d wait for the park to be complete.” 

According to Mayor Gardella, Mr. Hollander chose the location in the park where it sits. Mr. Hollander emailed The Star that he had yet to view the statue. 

Finally, it is unclear why, despite the 2016 letter of approval from the village, the Century Arts Foundation was shopping the 1,500-pound statue to the Sag Harbor Partnership as recently as this winter, to be placed at the John Steinbeck House. Susan Mead, the co-president of the partnership, said it could not accept the statue while its application for the house to receive Landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places was still under consideration. “We aren’t able to add things to the site at this point,” she said. 

A 2022 tax filing showed the Century Arts Foundation had just under $7 million in assets. No one responded to a message left at a phone number associated with the foundation early this week, but it has a long history of making charitable donations to the village. In 2014, for example, it underwrote the restoration of the main floor of the historic portion of the library. 

“The only thing the village had to do was make the cement base where we wanted to place it,” said Mayor Gardella. The statue is tucked close to the side of the Lance Cpl. Jordan C. Haerter Memorial Bridge, and is only easily viewed from Steinbeck Park itself. “The whole thing happened pretty quickly,” Mr. Gardella said. “I went down there to look at it and there were a few teenagers taking pictures and having fun sitting next to the dog Charley. It sparked their interest.” 

“I don’t know how long that pipe is going to last in his mouth,” said Bob Plumb, a village trustee. Indeed, if there was a pipe in the statue’s mouth, it’s already gone. 

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