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Public Art and Argument

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"Green Acres" is an undulating, terraced sculpture in the courtyard of the Department of Environmental Protection Agency in Trenton, New Jersey. The work is a monument to New Jersey's land and landscapes, its arbors and harbors and pastures. "Green Acres" reflects the waves and skyways, the reaches and mountain rises of the State. Like the places it celebrates, it is welcoming--people sit and climb on the sculpture, they traverse the courtyard, they see "Green Acres" best from the windows above it.

Despite its location and its environmental themes, "Green Acres", by the noted sculptor and art historian Athena Tacha, is set to be demolished by the environmental agency that commissioned it. Tacha was given notice that unless she personally removed the piece by the end of July 2012, it will be destroyed. In fact, it can't be moved; it is rooted in its space. Also, "Green Acres" is public art, purchased with public funds, for the enjoyment and in the interest of the public, yet the decision to destroy it has been made without review or recourse. (For more information, see The Cultural Landscape Foundation, July 6, 2012, "'Green Acres' Under Threat of Destruction.")

The bureaucratic explanation is that Department of Environmental Protection managers now prefer to put a "rain garden" in the courtyard, and it is also argued--after twenty-seven years--that the sculpture blocks passage from the building. They say that there is no aesthetic judgment in the decision. But, of course, the intent to destroy a work is an aesthetic judgment, however else it may be described, and it is a notable irony that environmental professionals, publically employed, would destroy environmental, public art. Architecture and art experts, the press, the American Institute of Architects, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a bevy of petitioners, are working to change the minds of the managers in charge. The managers, however, say that it is "a done deal."

This is not an isolated story. In Goshen, New York, the Orange County Government Center, a seminal work by the famed Modernist architect Paul Rudolph, is threatened with demolition. The World Monuments Fund, among other petitioners, is trying to save the structure. In Chicago, the Prentice Women's Hospital, a unique structure of the 1970's, is threatened. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is arguing against this. Concerned citizens, the press, and the professionals may prevail in cases like these. We can hope so. But what we learn from them is that demolition can occur even when it is more expensive than restoration. What we learn is that despite regrets about earlier tear-downs, we still destroy place and past. What we learn is that too often it is not even clear how these decisions are made.

Sometimes official naiveté or simply bad judgment threatens art and architecture. Often, it is negligence, bad maintenance. Whether by mandate or neglect, too many true and tested works by well-recognized artists--works known and esteemed--are threatened by space demands, or by changes in artistic likes and dislikes, or by rules or regulations, or administrative authority thoughtlessly or ruthlessly applied. What we can hope when situations like these arise is that citizens will be thoughtful and attentive. We can hope that information will be provided by the press and by experts. We can hope that debate will be encouraged; that diversities of opinion will be heard, and, most of all, we can hope that respectful attention to our artists and our communities will prevail over claims of immediacy or mere matters of taste.

Discussion and debate--and wide participation in them--matter in public art. Indeed, without public discussion and debate, it can be argued that there is no public art. In his recent book, "Not Here, Not Now, Not That: Protests Over Art and Culture in America," Steven J. Tepper of Vanderbilt University argues that "artworks often serve as lightning rods, bringing forward and giving voice to underlying tension caused by social change...when communities experience ...new populations, new institutions,...new patterns of leisure, and new technologies." He says that we need "a 21st century approach" to decisions about art and architecture in the public realm. Tepper suggests that leaving decisions about public art to chance, or to a small set of decision-makers, or to special interests, is against the very nature of public art. He says, "... for those citizens who are actively protesting or defending an artwork - these conflicts are critical arenas for exercising voice and for taking part in public life." Assumedly, the more wide-spread and shared the debate is, the more worthy--or at least defensible--the decisions will be.

A recent controversy in Indianapolis seems to me to bear this out in a most affecting way. The City made a decision and appropriated funds to enhance the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a historic route meant to signal and spotlight the City's past and its important markers. As part of the plan, a new piece of sculpture was proposed for the City-County Building. The prominent artist Fred Wilson was selected to develop a sculpture for the site. Wilson's proposal was ingenious, and in the context of his work, totally appropriate. He proposed to isolate and separately re-create the sole black figure, a freed slave, in a familiar group statue in Indianapolis celebrating freedom and democracy. The new statue would be aligned visually with the old one; the two statues could be seen at once by viewers of either. The new figure, singled out and freed from the shackles of the original, would be holding high a colorful flag showing all the places in the world affected by the historic dispersion of Africans.

The sculpture--called "E Pluribus Unum"--elicited widespread local reaction. After intense debate in community meetings, in the press, through public airings and surveys, Wilson's proposal was rejected. The community resisted the focus on slavery; some citizens disliked what they saw as supplication or powerlessness in the new figure; some thought the image was inappropriate for the setting. In my view, and the views of others, this was a sad decision artistically. Wilson's scheme would have resulted in a work of great power and pertinence to our time. But Wilson's own reaction is much more important and much more germane to public art decision-making. He said, "Of course it doesn't make me happy that people are upset with this particular image. But I am really thrilled that people are in dialogue about imagery, the City, and how race is infused in that dialogue...in the end, the people of Indianapolis really have to come together, and I'll abide by whatever comes..."

For art and artists, for community and country, for the affirmation of "public" in "public art," we can't have a better model of decision-making and decision-taking than this drama in Indianapolis.

Since this post published, the decision to demolish Green Acres has been reversed. This is such wonderful news, not just for the art, artist and local community, but, hopefully, also for the broader issue of improving communication about public art with the public.