In 1980, when the State of Michigan decided to acquire a major sculpture,
the art community chose the world-renowned artist Michael Heizer and
proudly purchased "This Equals That," the largest sculpture
in the United States. They placed it just west of the Capitol in downtown
Lansing. The piece was praised by art critics as a clever geometric
concept showing one full circle, two halves, four quarters, and eight
eighths, all within a whole. Michigan invested a hefty $540,000- the
price one pays for a sculpture referenced in art catalogs worldwide.
an Nov. 18 editorial, the Lansing State Journal said this town
needs "a little more Norman Rockwell, and a little less Picasso,"
claiming there were only two different types of art, and that
only one shouts "Michigan."
Taran, a Michigan State University art professor, recalls often picking
up visiting friends from the airport and taking them directly to see
the monumental sculpture in the middle of the night. "We had popcorn
and looked at it. They would say "My god, a Michael Heizer in Lansing,
Mich.," and I would say "Amazing, isn't it?" and they
would respond "Most amazing!"
For capital residents, a starlit evening with popcorn and metropolitan
art may never again be possible: Two weeks ago, construction crews began
removing the seven iron, oxide-tinted monumental structures to a state
warehouse. When the sculpture was fabricated, the concrete objects had
been sprayed over a stainless steel, plywood and mesh framework. According
to the state Department of Management and Budget, there were cracks
in the pieces that let water seep through to rot interior boards. The
water is also said to have seeped through to the concrete plaza below,
leaking into the two-level underground parking garage the ensemble sits
atop, where spots of the garage's roof have become weak and threaten
to fall without repair.
Heizer, who creates his sculptures on a ranch in Hiko, Nev., nor the
art community was consulted about the state's decision to dismantle
Lansing's Stonehenge. A spokeswoman for the Department of Management
and Budget, Penny Davis, said the state was unable to locate Heizer.
She said a letter had been prepared, but the address was missing.
"That's bullshit," said Jennifer Mackiewicz, an associate
for the New York Dia Center for the Arts, and Heizer's assistant in
the Nevada desert for the past 11 years. She remembers the states
contacting Heizer personally when they restored the grounds seven years
Indeed, I had little trouble tracking down an address for Heizer. Getting
an interview with him is the hard part. Heizer is famously unavailable
to the media. However, Mackiewicz said he will grant me an interview
after the state has contacted him.
Michael Govan, director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York.
mistrusts the claim of water leakage damaging the parking garage. The
Department of Management and Budget claims that, while they were able
to waterproof the plaza on top of the parking structures in 1995 and
1996, they'd been unable to fix areas beneath the sculpture.
Michael Govan, director of the Dia Art Foundation, the current sponsor
of Heizer's massive land art project in Nevada, called "City,"
said state government is using the sculpture's lack of waterproofing
as an excuse. After learning about its dismantlement from me, and debating
the subject this weekend with Heizer, Govan said in a phone interview:
"Originally the sculpture was on a concrete plaza, but then grass
was reintroduced. It really changed the look of the sculpture quite
dramatically. Rather than being on a dark plaza, it has grass and a
little bit of concrete. It looked like it was sitting on dishes. In
a way it already was destroyed." Govan pointed out that the 1980
piece is "or maybe was" one of America's greatest monumental
sculptures. He emphasized that it was "ridiculous" that the
artist wasn't consulted, especially since his address has been the same
for years. When asked about taking legal action, Govan commented, "It's
not like in Europe, where an artist's rights are more protected."
The director of Dia said he was skeptical that Michigan is interested
in restoring the sculpture considering that it's been neglected
for so long and that there has been no communication with the artist.
view of This Equals That in better days, circa 1980,
before Michael Heizers sculpture on the Capitol plaza became
discolored and long before the lack of maintenance caused damage.
Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Archives and historical
Equals That today. In the back is the biggest piece reduced
to its steel and plywood structure after the concrete had been removed.
The sign refers to restoration, but no plans for restoration have
been made. The infrastructure of the sculpture is head for a warehouse,
which critics suspect the state hopes it will stay until This
Equals That is forgotten.
of the Department of Management and Budget said she wasn't aware of
any policy that regulates how to proceed with public art once it's fallen
in disrepair. She said they'd informed Gov. John Engler, who'd approved
their action plan. But since the project had become a "safety issue,"
it would have been the department's responsibility to proceed even without
the governor's approval.
Construction workers have begun chopping up the concrete, cutting through
the wire mesh and hacking up the rotted plywood. When finished, all
that will be left for possible restoration will be the caging and steel
structure that form the original pieces.
Given the state's more than $1 billion deficit, it seems unlikely "This
Equals That" will ever find its way out of storage, although the
state said it will consult restoration experts as they fix the parking
structure. Kathy Kremers, spokeswoman of the State Department of History,
Arts and Libraries, said the state is asking the Michigan Council for
Arts and Cultural Affairs to create a contact list of art experts to
evaluate the restoration costs.
Former Gov. William G. Milliken, who approved the sculpture in 1976,
said he was upset to hear about the dismantlement which he hadn't known
about until I called him at his home in Traverse City. He immediately
telephoned Davis. "I told her that the worst thing that could happen
would be to remove the various units and to destroy them." Milliken
said he was assured by Davis that this wasn't the plan. "I hope
they'll be a little more hesitant to take an irreversible action. I
also faxed her my dedication speech, because I suspect that they wouldn't
have been aware of the climate at that time."
Not just another politician on a horse
"Segmented from the beginning, Lansing has been affected by land
speculators, legislators, educators, students, and corporate employees
who have no long term interest in the city. Potential leadership, like
potential sculpture, has not materialized in the past," writes
Fay L. Hendry in "Outdoor Sculpture in Lansing."
As one of the major sculptures listed in contemporary art history books
disappears piece by piece, I was left wondering about attitude of capitol-area
residents toward the arts. At the Capitol dedication in 1848, Gov. William
L. Greenly spoke of sparsely populated Lansing, settled in the wilderness
far away from the more established centers in the southeastern part
of the state, as a town that had risen "without the pale of civilization."
Couldn't this old lumber outpost town handle a piece of contemporary
Floyd, a professor of contemporary art at Michigan State University,
said she wasn't surprised to hear the art community wasn't contacted
about the removal of the Heizer sculpture. After all, this was an abstract
piece of art. "Very few public programs on art education stress
an in-depth understanding of how art can speak," she said. By the
time students go to college, their tastes are already biased toward
representational art, film and television. "When we get to minimalism
in my contemporary art classes, we can't get through it fast enough."
Floyd points out that in order to appreciate abstract art such as "This
Equals That," one needs to understand the idea of "Gestalt,"
or conceptional art, but unfortunately students are not taught about
the rationale of abstract ideas in art history.
It was a more progressive era for artwork in 1975, when State Architect
Almon J. Durkee returned from a walk across the Capitol Plaza and suggested
a beautification project to then-Gov. Milliken. "I noticed how
sterile the plaza was and thought it should welcome people and integrate
the city with government life." Milliken agreed and initiated a
Special Arts Commission that led to the construction of Heizer's large-scale
outdoor sculpture, designed by the sculptor to embody the idea of integration.
The commission's 40-page report and other files from 1978, now in the
Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, document
the ambitious spirit of the project. "The commission's assignment
was to develop an overall plan for incorporating art and art works into
State buildings, including painting, sculpture, photography, landscaping,
and other appropriate means to interior and exterior beautification."
a preliminary consideration of some 40 major artists associated with
large public sculpture, the jury narrowed the list to three, and finally
chose Heizer. Milliken, a strong supporter of the fine arts, said in
the dedication speech on Sept. 25, 1980, that he didn't want just "another
politician on the horse." Instead, the state government was going
to choose a sculpture that created some controversy, that made people
think. A fund-raiser raised $290,000, of which Milliken and his wife,
Helen, kicked in $5,000. Other donations came from organizations such
as the Henry Ford II Fund, Kmart, General Motors, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation,
the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kresge Foundation. The cost
of landscaping and securing the underground parking garage, totaling
roughly $250,000, came from state coffers.
The rarely photographed Michael Heizer in the 1970s, when he created
This Equals That. The picture appeared in the German-published
1979 book Michael Heizer and was taken by Xavier Fourcade.
sculpture, whose steel armatures had to be flown in by helicopter, is
based on the configuration of the lotus flower, an ancient Egyptian
symbol. Its basic component is a pill six feet thick and 48 feet in
circumference, and four others are 12 feet across, abstractly linked
in the shape of a flower.
"Someday German, Japanese, and New York collectors will be sending
postcards of the Heizer from Lansing," commented the Lansing State
Journal one week before the dedication ceremony. Supporters and fund-raisers
were enthusiastic: With this project, they claimed, 600,000 people traveling
through the Capitol every year won't need to stop in Detroit to see
a Henry Moore or go to Grand Rapids to see an Alexander Calder. The
giant sculpture would be lit up at night, and would be a focal point
for summer concerts.
Ignorant as pigeons
Twenty-two years after lauding Heizer's lotus flower design, the State
Journal featured a guest column headlined "Send sculpture to the
dump" by a retired Journal reporter, John Albright. Albright argued
that "This Equals That" visually evoked the romance "associated
with oil refineries and sewage treatment plants." "Even their
skins of rouge-colored stucco spoke an unintended yarn of Michigan's
past in the Rust Belt days." The former LSJ reporter suggested
that the state cut the warehouse costs and "truck it to a landfill."
Clearly, the lotus flower never bloomed. Milliken's term ended in 1983,
and since then no effort has been made to educate the public about the
sculpture. Today, not many residents know there was a world renowned
sculpture behind the Capitol. Few who see the dismantlement know what's
going on. Soon after its arrival in Lansing, "This Equals That"
became a sleeping beauty with rusty spots. By the 1980s Lansing State
Journal reporters had begun contemptuously referring to the sculpture
pieces as "Alka Seltzer tablets." Suzanne B. Mills, executive
director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, said that, since 1982,
she couldn't recall a single visitor asking for information about the
sculpture. "But I can't say that there have ever been anybody ask
me about any other piece either." No postcards had been made.
Kirkpatrick, a retired professor of art at the University of Michigan
in Ann Arbor, said she was very sad about what was happening in Lansing.
"Monumental sculpture in the past has usually been respected by
everyone except the pigeons." Kirkpatrick participated in the original
six-member selection jury, a national group of highly qualified art
experts. Another Michigan member of this group was John Neff, the then-curator
of contemporary art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. "We served
in good faith that the state would take care of the things that we were
asked to consider for the state," Kirkpatrick said.
She recalled that a budget had been approved to provide for the maintenance
of "This Equals That." But after the Special Art Commission
was decommissioned after Milliken's term ended, Kirkpatrick suspects
there was no longer a body of public authority in place to keep-up with
maintenance. "In such cases often things begin to slip, and it
becomes a process very hard to reverse."
In 1993 "This Equals That" was clearly in need of renovation.
It became a case for SOS! (Save Outdoor Sculpture), a national public-private
initiative to document monuments and outdoor sculpture, and to help
communities preserve their sculptural legacies for the next century.
Susan Nichols, Director of SOS!, said they've photographed and documented
32,000 art works throughout the country. Of these, 50 percent had been
in need, and 10 percent in urgent need. According to the June 1993 SOS!
survey, recorded on the Smithsonian American Art Museum inventory Web
site, Heizer's sculpture in Lansing was in need of "treatment urgent."
was very evident that the sculpture wasn't something that was going
to stay, Roy Saper, owner of Saper Galleries, says. There
is no question that it was not properly maintained. They should
have consulted Michael Heizer. He could have come back and said
let's apply for a several-hundred-thousand-dollar grant.
been assessment and conservation funds available, and "the State
government would have been eligible to apply," said Nichols. However,
Michigan didn't apply for SOS! funding. "We don't actually tap
everyone on the shoulder," Nichols said. Awards are made to those
who apply for the grants, which in Michigan went for such works as the
Abraham Lincoln at the Detroit Public Library and Detroit's General
Alexander Macomb, the Alma Mater at Muskegon High School, and Firemen's
Monument in St. Joseph.
When I told Kirkpatrick, a professor emeritus, that Lansing did not
apply for an SOS! grant to restore its Heizer sculpture, she nodded.
"In the 1990s, the state government was not as committed to arts
as the previous governments had been." Looking back, Kirkpatrick
still supports the selection of "This Equals That" because
it invited people to look at it and discuss it. "Peoples
attitudes towards non-objective sculpture is always somewhat ironic.
I had expected the sculpture to win friends as time went on," she
Members of the Greater Lansing art community say the state had an obligation
to inform the artist and the community, no matter whether "This
Equals That" had found friends. Roy Saper, who owns Saper Galleries
in East Lansing, said he finds it interesting that the sculpture is
located between two major state buildings. "Before law is passed,
the legislative body holds public hearings, and we can express our belief
in support or in opposition of the proposed legislation. Here is the
case where we have public work of art - paid for by our tax dollars
- where people were not given the opportunity to have their say."
The East Lansing resident remembers sitting near Helen Milliken during
the dedication. It had always been evident to him that the Heizer sculpture
needed regular maintenance and wasn't getting it. One year later Saper
noticed the sculpture was no longer the same color. Two years later
he saw that its edges were changing, and once he saw the structure's
plywood outline. "It was very evident that the sculpture wasn't
something that was going to stay," he recalls. "There is no
question that it was not properly maintained."
Saper said the state didn't address the issue appropriately. "They
should have consulted Michael Heizer. He could have come back and said
let's apply for a several hundred thousand dollar grant." He said
one option would be for the state to reconstruct the sculpture out of
aluminum and ask Heizer to "kick in $100,000." The gallery
owner believes that Lansing should show a sensitivity to the artist,
to those who create it, and to the space in which its presented.
To do anything else would be "stealing away a sense of history."
Lacking sense of history
Professor Floyd, who spent part of her childhood in Europe with her
French-born mother, points out that part of the problem with the Heizer
piece is that it was never "owned" by the community. "Europeans
have a collective feeling of general ownership of any art in public
places. Here art is much more of a commodity, it's not something that
people own collectively, because art is extraneous." Floyd said
this theory doesn't apply to pieces of representational art, such as
the Spartan Statue on Michigan State University campus.
Since its erection in 1945, the oversized muscleman "Sparty"
is the focal point of attention for students and college football fans.
In 1989, a Save Our Sparty initiative raised $100,000 to restore the
statue's surface, which receives careful maintenance on an almost annual
basis. This year MSU President Peter McPherson announced the plan to
replace the cracking ceramic sculpture with a $50,000 bronze replica.
Hopfensperger, who chairs the art and art history department MSU, believes
the level of care and planning largely reflects the values of its citizenry.
In other words: "A municipality that cares for its public buildings
and public art reflects the sort of thinking of those people."
Hopfensperger said there were many examples of communities failing
to take care of public buildings and public art. "I don't think
they plan to have a sculpture deteriorate, but its a possibility
given the dynamic conditions that surround any municipality."
Hopfensperger believes the Heizer sculpture failed to attract more visitors
because it was out of sight for motor traffic. "One of the curiosities
about living in Michigan is that much of our public lives are spent
traversing our landscape in an automobile, and whether a public object
is within a sight-line from an automobile is within the consciousness
of the people here." He said life in the Car Capitol was different
from life in an East Coast city like Boston, where public sculptures
weren't visible from automobiles but placed where one could explore
them on foot. He said that MSU's "New Public Art on campus"
initiative took this latter strategy when selecting a location for the
$250,000 sculpture in front of the John A. Hannah Administration Building.
The sculpture commissioned to California sculptor Bruce Wolfe, showing
former President Hannah, will be placed at a walking crossroads on campus,
so it "would function very differently than does a piece that's
sited as to be viewed by an automobile."
Saper, who serves on the East Lansing Arts Commission, said one of the
considerations made when selecting a site is that to make the art visible
not only by pedestrians, but from a car as well.
The Art Council of Greater Lansings Mills also believes the Heizer
sculpture was forgotten because of its remote location west of the Capitol.
"Most people never get on that site." She said the same problem
led to the removal of the Construction #150 last year, a stainless steel
sculpture by Jose de Rivera, located at 100 N. Washington Square Mall
in downtown Lansing When the city opened up the mall for street traffic,
the sculpture had to be removed. It has been stored in wooden boxes
at a storage facility. A committee led by City Councilwoman Joan Bauer
recommended relocating the abstract sculpture in front of City Hall.
But because of the underground parking, the City must first evaluate
if the ground can stand the weight of the piece.
De Rivera's sculpture was purchased by a 1970 downtown beautification
committee that received a $45,000 grant from the National Endowment
for the Arts and an equal amount of private monies. The committee originally
intended to commission a work by the famous Swedish-American sculptor
Claes Oldenburg, who proposed designs for a large standing mitt with
ball, an alphabet Good Humor Bar, an ashtray, or a giant saw. Although
the first two designs were accepted, they were never produced, due to
a fabrication problem. Oldenburg's proposal for a colossal ashtray was
rejected because Lansing public schools had recently begun an anti-smoking
campaign. Moreover, the committee interpreted it as a statement against
the Vietnam War, with the cigarette butts representing fallen soldiers.
But in Martin Friedmann's book "Oldenburg. Six Themes," the
artist said he hadn't meant to make an anti-war statement. He just wanted
to compare his giant ashtray with monuments commemorating past wars.
"We had an iconographic confusion." Oldenburg's final proposal,
for a giant saw that cut through the new Lansing mall, didn't please
the committe either. And so, he withdrew from the project in January
1973. "They turned it down, because it wasnt considered safe.
I think it's a mistake, because people need to be challenged by art,"
says Floyd. Today, the Alphabet Good Humor Bar is owned by the San Diego
Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, Calif., the catcher's mitt is
in a Greenwich, Conn., private collection, the Giant Saw can be seen
at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. Whatever happened to the
ashtray? I couldn't find out.
Does Lansing not deserve contemporary art, because residents won't leave
their cars to look at it, or even because they reject or fear the political
implications of its abstraction? In an Nov. 18 editorial, the Lansing
State Journal said Michigan can "do better" than Heizers
monumental work. "Better" apparently means more representational.
In a comment that set the local art community on edge, the Journal editorial
said that is needed is "a little more Norman Rockwell, and a little
"This view is extremely limiting," commented Hopfensperger.
"I would like to be part of a community where we would not only
embrace Rockwell and Picasso, but many varied other art forms that aren't
familiar to us." Gallery owner Saper added: "That editorial
trivialized somebody's assessment of art. This is a very large community,
it's much more sophisticated than perhaps some editorial writer is giving
credit for." Saper said that in the last decade he's had showings
on both Picasso and Rockwell, and both were sold out. He said there
is at least one Picasso hanging on the eighth floor of an office building
in downtown Lansing. "This community is able to accept Rockwell
Bandes, director of the Kresge Art Museum, said it was a mistake to
assume Lansing residents were generally ignorant of more challenging
art. She referred to this summer's "sculpture in the streets"
event, which showed 15 bronze sculptures, three -dimensional reproductions
of impressionist paintings, by J. Seward Johnson. "People did not
react as positively as the city thought they would. It was an example
in which they brought the kind of work that Norman Rockwell does and
received disappointment. I guess what you could say is that this art
was not challenging. And I think people reacted to the fact that it
Responding the criticism, Leanne Stites, director of the Principal Shopping
District, that organized the $55,000 project, said she saw "overwhelming
support for the sculptures." Stites emphasized that, as business
people, their main goal was to draw more residents downtown, "and
not to support public art." Asked why they wouldnt invest
in a permanent sculpture, she replied: "We haven't made enough
money to buy a permanent sculpture yet." Stites said they're planning
to repeat the event in 2003 and expect similar costs.
The last word
The removal of "This Equals That" raises the question of what
should now happen with the one-half acre used by the large sculpture,
and, more important: What is the future of public art in Lansing? "If
they remove it, and leave green lawn there, it really does speak to
the community," said MSU art professor Floyd. She suggests that
the state should quickly invite experts and residents to hold a symposium
on the role of public sculpture in Lansing, "so taxpayer money
extends the life, rather than becoming bad advertising." She said
one should consider that Alexander Calder's "La Grande Vitesse"
in downtown Grand Rapids was controversial at first, but then became
an emblem for the city, as citizens slowly began to take ownership.
The 42-ton steel stabile was the first public sculpture in the United
States to be funded by the National endowment for the Arts, and it was
dedicated to the City of Grand Rapids on June 14, 1969. A graphic of
it adorns the city's street signs, letter head and trash trucks. "It
just requires time," said Floyd.
Certainly the last word on Lansing's "This Equals That" hasn't
yet been spoken. Saper suggests getting the public involved. He says
the new administration led by Gov.-elect Jennifer Granholm, who takes
office in January, could conduct a survey asking state employees to
circle their preferences for the use of the Capitol courtyard. "If
a majority says, 'Put in trees and park benches,' then let's do that.
If a majority says, 'Let's work over the next five years and select
appropriate work of art,' then let's do that. If a majority says, 'We
should have a pond here with codfish, or fountains,' then let's do that!"
Dia Director Michael Govan says it would be possible to restore the
Heizer sculpture. "Michael would assist. He's now building a project
that is 20 times as difficult. He's as brilliant an engineer as he is
an artist." Govan said the Dia Art Foundation would like to help
support with the proper restoration and fundraising. "Whether we
can provide funds ourselves I can't say today, having not discussed
this with our board," he said. Govan would like to see a public
effort to end the negligent treatment of "This Equals That."
"When the sculpture was made, it was one of the nation's most important
pieces of art."
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