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Daniel Grant

Daniel Grant

Posted: January 19, 2011 04:08 PM

Back in 1970, Hyland Biological of Costa Mesa, California commissioned sculptor Claire Falkenstein (1908-97) to create a large-scale artwork that was installed outside the front of the building, paying her $20,000. The 18 foot-tall (five-foot wide and deep) metal and glass piece was titled "DNA Molecule," and it greeted visitors for the better part of four decades. A couple of mergers later, the pharmaceutical company (now called Valeant Pharmaceuticals) sold the work to a private collector in 2007 at an auction in San Francisco for $150,250, which exceeded the auction house's estimate of $60,000-80,000. Not a bad return on investment and a pleasant surprise for auctioneer Bonhams & Butterfields.

Actually, the auction house was stunned. "It took a lot of convincing to get us to take the Falkenstein in the first place," said auctioneer Bonhams & Butterfields Chief Operating Officer Patrick Meade. "It's a very good piece, but how were we supposed to bring it into our auction room? We're not equipped to do this kind of thing." Instead, the auction house took the novel approach of picturing the sculpture in its catalogue but directing prospective bidders to travel to Costa Mesa to see the work in person. (Special Note: The $150,250 price didn't include the cost of disassembling the sculpture, moving it somewhere else and filling in the hole in front of the building.)

The sale and the price, Meade noted, have resulted in more calls to Bonhams & Butterfields from (California) owners of big, publicly displayed works of art. Consigning to auction houses may be one answer to the question of what to do with public art that its owner no longer wants. With thousands of works of art in public spaces -- sculptures and murals, mostly -- that have been commissioned and installed over the past four decades, the question is likely to come up more and more.

And, what's wrong with the art that someone wants to get rid of it? Nothing, necessarily. Valeant Pharmaceuticals relocated 25 miles away to Aliso Viejo, selling the building in Costa Mesa and the art in front of it as separate transactions. In another instance, an environmental landscape, or bush sculpture, called "Topo" that artist Maya Lin had been commissioned to create for the City of Charlotte, North Carolina back in 1991, interfered with the plans of an Atlanta-based real estate developer, Pope & Land Enterprises, which bought the land (and the art on it) from the city in 2006. In 2000, when Comerica Bank moved its branch within Detroit's downtown Renaissance Center to a location that could not accommodate the 160-foot long mural by Glen Michaels, which had been commissioned back in 1975, the artwork had to be taken out. A sculptural installation by Stephen Antonakos, "Neon for Southwestern Bell," which had been commissioned by the company in 1984, was in the way of a current improvement project in Dallas' central business district, leading AT&T to want it gone. Advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, which had amassed an 8,000-10,000 art collection between 1965 and 1986, has spent the last 20 years disposing of it, including the three life-size bronze figures at the entrance to the elevators that the company had commissioned Bruno Lucchesi to create in 1966.

The usual fate of no-longer-wanted public art is to be junked (Pope & Land Enterprises offered the 1,600 foot-long holly bush installation to several arboretums, museums and universities over a two-year period, but there were no takers), donated (AT&T gave the Antonakos to the City of Dallas, while Comerica split up the mural -- with the artist's consent and involvement -- to donate to several hospitals and medical centers in Detroit), sold or put in storage.

Yet another option was evident in Minneapolis, which tore down its old Central Library in 2003 to make way for a new Central Library that opened in 2006, designed by Cesar Pelli and adorned by a new sculptural commission by the artist Beverly Pepper. However, the old library had its own outdoor sculpture, titled "Scroll" by local artist John Rood, which had stood for 43 years. The Minneapolis Arts Commission had estimated the cost of de-installing, moving, restoration, reassembly and reinstallation of the sculpture at between $63,000 and $87,000. A number of local institutions (including Franconia Sculpture Park, General Mills art collection, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center and the Weisman Art Museum) were asked if they wanted to take "Scroll," declined the offer. A few other institutions (Minnesota State Fair, University of Minnesota Public Art Program and the Western Sculpture Park in St. Paul) showed more interest but only if all the costs were borne by the library. The Commission's own recommendation was to "demolish the scroll sculpture and recycle the metal." Ultimately, one of the demolition companies involved in taking down the old Central Library, Veit & Company took the sculpture, salvaging it at a cost of $7,500, and the artwork is now outside the company's headquarters in Rogers, Minnesota. "The owner of the company likes these kinds of things," said Veit's director of sales and marketing Chuck Geisler.

On occasion, the artists -- if they are still alive -- may get their work returned, if they are willing to buy it back (commissioning agreements often include a right of first refusal) and pay to remove it. However, "few artists can afford to buy their work back," said Scott Hodes, a lawyer in Chicago who has negotiated commissioning agreements for both artists and public agencies. As a result, the other options tend to dominate.

There may not have been other choices for the Maya Lin installation, an arrangement of bushes that the artist viewed as "site-specific" and would be difficult to replicate elsewhere, but to uproot it and haul it to the dump, despite the $340,000 paid to her. The developer, however, had not commissioned the project and was not out the money. In other instances, money tends to loom large for the owners of unwanted publicly displayed artwork. Storage fees and the costs of restoration (especially for pieces that have been outside, subject to the elements and vandalism) can be high, and the likelihood of sales low, which may explain Bonhams & Butterfield's initial reluctance to take on the Falkenstein. The Bruno Lucchesi sculpture was even hard to sell than the Falkenstein, despite the fact that the artist is well known and whose larger pieces reach $200,000. "Sotheby's and Christie's wouldn't take it," said Annette Fox, the corporate art consultant to J. Walter Thompson. "The galleries that work with Lucchesi weren't interested in handling it." The owner of one of those galleries, Robert Fishko of New York's Forum Gallery, stated that the value of the Lucchesi sculpture, titled "Mass Communications," was "severely diminished because it was an advertising agency-related theme" and thereby site-specific, rather than a work of art that would have broader meaning to more people. Perhaps, another advertising agency or communications company might have been interested in the subject of the artwork, Fox stated, but it is difficult to place the art when it already has been completed. "You need to be in at the design stage, when a company is working with an architect, to develop the artistic concept that will work with the particular space," she said. In the end, after numerous inquiries, she was able to consign the Lucchesi to Litchfield County Auctions in Connecticut, where the piece was sold in late 2006 for $7,200, under the $10,000-20,000 estimate.

Often, the most advantageous outcomes for both artists and publicly displayed art owners are donations of the objects to nonprofit institutions. AT&T, for instance, had the 34 foot high and 75 foot long Antonakos piece appraised at $90,000 (three times what the artist was paid as a commission), for which it will take a deduction, and the work is expected to be reinstalled on a side of Dallas's convention center. For its part, Comerica had an appraisal of $350,000 for the Glen Michaels mural. In another example, an untitled outdoor sculpture that George Sugarman (1912-99) was commissioned to create in 1987 for the NCNB Plaza in Tampa, Florida for $250,000, was displaced by the demolition of the plaza. However, the plaza's owner, the North Carolina National Bank, is donating the sculpture for a new mixed-use development in Tampa, having received a $1.1 million appraisal for the work.

Doing an appraisal of a public artwork is more art than science. "There is no secondary market for public art, although some individual sales do take place," said Alex Rosenberg, a New York City appraiser who made the $1.1 million estimate for the Sugarman sculpture. The paucity of sold public artworks, or any resold public artworks by Sugarman, did not faze him in this endeavor. "In the appraising field, you call it appraising without comparables. It's anything that sounds logical. It's the theory of being reasonable." As an example of logic and reason, "the cost of moving, refurbishing and insuring the work adds to its value." He noted that one of Sugarman's most renowned artworks, a sculpture commissioned by the General Services Administration in 1975 for the plaza outside a federal courthouse in Baltimore (titled "Baltimore Federal"), "enhanced the value of the plaza, which in turn enhanced the value of Sugarman's work."

In the process of moving from one place to another, the artworks themselves are restored, and the only thing lost is the idea that these pieces were originally intended as site-specific. However, according to Tom Eccles, director of Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies and former director of New York City's Public Art Fund, "people increasingly are questioning the very notion of site specificity. A work seen in one context can be very happily seen in another." In the terminology of the public art field, such a work is "repurposed."

The Public Art Fund, a private nonprofit organization, is distinguished from most other public and private art commissioning bodies in that installations are never permanent and usually last between six weeks and one year. The artworks themselves never stop being owned by the artists who sometimes sell pieces that have been on display. "It's more like an extended gallery show, but with the exhibition space being plazas around the city," said Rochelle Steiner, the Public Art Fund's current director. Among the artworks the Fund has sponsored that were eventually sold was Roxy Paine's 50 foot-tall stainless steel tree titled "Bluff," which was installed in New York's Central Park as part of the 2002 Whitney Biennial (an upstate New York collection bought it), and Jeff Koons' 43 foot-tall steel and plants "Puppy" in 2000 at Rockefeller Center (art collector and publisher Peter Brant purchased it).

Short-term installations, in addition to the fact that it does not actually own the pieces, limit the need of the Public Art Fund to develop or act on policies for deaccessioning artworks. Corporations and private owners of publicly displayed art have no reason to create such policies, and most public art commissioning agencies tend not to think about the future. (If they did, the costs of regular maintenance and conservation would be built into the commissions, which rarely happens.) The Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission in Tennessee is one that has established guidelines, reserving the right to re-site or remove public art, because (1) the site is being eliminated, (2) "the site is being altered such that the artwork is no longer compatible with the site," (3) the city can no longer guarantee the work's safety from damage and vandalism, (4) the artwork "has become a danger to public safety," (5) the cost of conserving is prohibitive, and (6) "significant adverse reaction to the artwork from the community has continued for an extended period (at least ten years)." The Arts Commission, however, does not indicate what then will happen to an artwork that is removed.
Sometimes, art just disappears. A different neon sculpture by Stephen Antonakos, "Neon for 42nd Street," which had been commissioned by Theatre Row Phase II Associates back in 1981 and installed on the side of a brownstone building between 10th and 11th Avenues in midtown Manhattan, presumably was demolished along with the building, after it was sold to a developer (The Related Companies) in 2004. Some desultory efforts were made by a secretary at Theatre Row to contact the artist, in order that he might retrieve the sculpture, but he was out of the country at the time of the tear-down, and the cost of taking down the art would have been considerable. No one at The Related Companies remembers the art, which now exists only as a photograph and a line on the artist's resume. "It's just a shame," Antonakos said.

Like a new car that loses a quarter of its value as soon as it is driven out of the dealer's lot (and keeps going down in worth thereafter), most public art tends to peak in value at the moment it is initially paid for. Sunoco paid $200,000 to Timothy Duffield to create a 20 foot-high figurative bronze work called "The Family" for the outside of its corporate headquarters in Philadelphia in 1981. However, when the company sold the building in 2005, it sought to sell the sculpture separately, enlisting the help of the city's public art program to find a buyer. No one seemed to be interested, and Sunoco just left the sculpture where it was, now the property (by default) of its new owners. For Duffield's purposes, at least it's still there for the public to see. He has had worse experiences. "I did a sculpture for a shopping center in New York State some years back," the Philadelphia artist said, but they did a revamping of it, and I think the contractor ended up with my work, salvaging it. I did a huge Christ figure for a Catholic hospital in Chester, Pennsylvania, but the hospital went bankrupt, and the nuns took the sculpture with them to a convent in South Carolina, so I was told."

Outdoor statues and monuments have existed for millennia, and towns and cities across the United States have statues to known and unknown soldiers of various wars, created by artists who were known as monument builders. The names of very few of them resonate with the public, even those quite knowledgeable in the arts. However, "public art" is a newer term, dating from the 1960s. The idea was to commission the most renowned artists in the country, whose work is generally seen only by those who visit art galleries and museums, to create work that everyone can see and experience. The idea has caught on with commissions by private individuals, churches and corporations, as well as the federal government, states and municipalities that instituted percent-for-art programs in which a portion of new construction costs would be used for the acquisition of publicly displayed art. The result has been the installation of murals and sculptures throughout the country by, in some cases, the most prominent contemporary artists of the time, including Alexander Calder, Christo, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Haas, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, Isamu Noguchi, Claes Oldenburg, Dennis Oppenheim, Tom Otterness, Nam June Paik, Ursula von Rydingsvard, George Segal, Richard Serra and Rachel Whiteread. Certainly, bringing often edgy gallery art outside has widened the discussion of art, even when comments become vitriolic.
Some of the artworks created become landmarks for the area, which no one wants to see removed or, if that must take place, destroyed. Governmental public art agencies are more apt to try to find another home for displaced art than corporate and private owners. For instance, the public art program of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia is currently looking for a suitable site for a 75 foot-long, eight foot high painted tile mural depicting the history of Pennsylvania by Larry Rivers (1923-2002) taken down from Philadelphia's Gallery II mall, where an expansion will remove the wall on which the mural was affixed for 20 years. "It's certainly not easy to find the right home for this work, but we will, because that's our mission," said Susan Miller Davis, director of the program.

In another example, the General Services Administration, whose Art-in-Architecture program has commissioned more than 350 artworks for federal buildings around the country since 1965, relocated Nancy Holt's 14 foot-high, eight foot diameter hemisphere "Annual Ring" to a field on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan in 2000 from the entranceway of a federal building in Saginaw, which was torn down 1999; the sculpture, which had been commissioned by the GSA, was first installed there in 1981. The federal agency is also looking for a new location for John Chamberlain's metal sculpture "Detroit Deliquescence," which had been commissioned for the federal government's McNamara Building in downtown Detroit in 1987; the McNamara Building is still standing, but the artwork had suffered damage from the elements and has been undergoing conservation since 2001. Perhaps, the most famous artwork commissioned by the GSA, Richard Serra's 120 foot-long and 10 foot-high "Tilted Arc," which was cut up and removed from New York City's Federal Plaza, in 1989 after a barrage of complaints by employees at the building, has been in storage for almost 20 years. There are no plans for it ever to see the light of day.