Neglect, not safety, likely undoing of Heizer work
month, without informing internationally renowned artist Michael
Heizer, the state began dismantling his monumental sculpture "This
Equals That" because it was a safety hazard. For 22 years,
the sculpture had occupied a plaza west of the Capitol in downtown
Lansing. The state removed it because it threatened the roof of
the garage that is below the plaza. Last week, staff writer Daniel
Sturm interviewed Harriet F. Senie, an expert on public art. Senie
is an art history professor at City College of New York who has
been published widely on public art in the United States, particularly
on the dismantlement of Richard Serra's controversial abstract
sculpture "Tilted Arc" in New York City, the removal
of which caused an uproar.
Q.: In Lansing, the fate of "This Equals That" is compared
with Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc," removed from Federal Plaza
in 1989. Are the two cases similar?
A.: It sounds very different. The Heizer piece was more or less removed
as a function of neglect. The Serra piece was removed because a number
of people hated it intensely enough to pursue its removal. A landscape
piece of the New York sculptor Allen Sonfist in St. Louis is closer
to the Heizer example. Sonfist decided to forgo a lawsuit against the
City of St. Louis when it tore down a work city maintenance workers
hadn't properly maintained. "I didnt want to spend a month
or two in St. Louis pursuing this; I thought Id get an ulcer,"
he said. It was removed by the local sanitation unit. They didn't ask
Q.: The state Department of Management and Budget claims they're
putting Heizer's sculpture in storage because it's a "safety issue."
Does this happen often?
A.: "Safety" is one of the first things that are usually cited.
There's a sculpture called "Baltimore Federal" by George Sugarman,
a General Services Administration commission of 1978. It is a colorful,
open lattice-work type of metal sculpture. There were people who were
concerned that rapists could hide behind it -- quite a fanciful fear.
A "public hazard" is one of the basic grounds under which
you can remove anything.
Q.: Are such claims valid?
A.: I have never seen a sculpture that was a safety hazard. One of the
things they said about the Serra was that bombs could be deflected from
it. Now, that might appear a little more realistic in the light of what
happened near that site on 9/11, but I don't believe it to be a realistic
fear. It was a cover-up. I don't know if such excuses are always a conscious
cover-up. Perhaps there is something about abstract contemporary art
that inspires such a sense of uneasiness that for many people in the
audience, it does translate into a kind of fear.
courtesy of Balthazar Korab
Equals That as it originally appeared on the plaza built for
it in front of the state Treasury building. The plaza was later
covered with grass, disturbing the artist, Michael Heizer. The state
dismantled the sculpture last month without his knowledge.
Let's just assume the safety issue was valid. Even so, shouldn't the
Department of Management and Budget first consult the artist, or communicate
plans within the art community?
A.: They should always do that first. That's very standard. This leads
to another troubling issue: As far as I know to this day most of public
art programs don't have deaccessioning (removing from display) policies,
though most museums do. You would think there should be a process at
least as rigorous as the commissioning process for the deaccessioning
process. Let's assume the sculpture is commissioned, and then it's erected.
And then suddenly there's damage, or the environment changes, or some
other thing happens that someone didn't take into account. The first
thing to do would be to apply the deaccesioning policy. Not having such
a policy in place, there should still be some official process for determining
whether these claims are valid. And certainly the artist should be involved,
because there might be the option on the artist's part to make some
Q.: Looking at the bureaucratic responses to Richard Serra's and
Michael Heizer's artwork in New York City and Lansing, do you see any
A.: Yes, obviously the person responsible for the commission, and who
supported the art, was no longer in power. And the next administration
didn't have an interest in art.
Q.: Why hasn't "This Equals That" become famous? Did Michigan
do a bad job in terms of marketing?
A.: The way information about public art is shared is first of all very
sketchy. It's not included in most books, and it's not reviewed in ART
(magazine). It's part of the same economic system as gallery art, but
it doesn't go into a museum. How would somebody like me, who knows more
about public art than most people - just because I've been doing it
for a long time -- find out about public art? Somebody may send me a
press release. I've never received one from Michigan. The artwork may
be in a place I visit, but there's no art conference in Lansing, which
would attract me there. It's not in a city that's well known for public
art. It's more likely that I'd find out if it had been in Seattle, because
I know about Heizer's "Adjacent, Against, Upon," which I saw
when I was there. My guess is that "This Equals That" is not
part of the art loop.
Q.: The Lansing State Journal featured a letter recommending trashing
"This Equals That" to save storage expenses. An editorial
proposed "more Norman Rockwell and less Picasso." Do such
attitudes exist in NYC, too?
A.: Absolutely. I'm very aware of the absence of art education in our
public schools. And it's not to say that just because you have art education
people would like Heizer or Serra. But I do think that you have to assume
there is a very large uninformed audience. I've come to believe that
successful public art has to work on very many levels. It must provide
an entry point for an uninformed art audience. That could be anything;
it could be color. I'm not advocating that public art be watered down,
but the best art works on very many levels.
Q.: One would think "This Equals That," a geometric design
based on a simple mathematical formula, invites people to understand
the art work. However, my research shows not many people actually knew
the sculpture existed, because they weren't able to see it from their
car. In Michigan public art has to be in immediate sight, from the road.
A.: That's a very interesting observation. It has a ring of truth to
it. People on the East Coast are not in the car all of the time. Maybe
they should put artwork in the parking lot of a shopping mall, or a
place where people are forced to walk, in front of City Hall, or in
Q.: Many of the sculptures we see today were commissioned in the
1960s and 1970s. Do cities like Lansing today no longer need symbols
of civic pride, have people given up on the idea?
A.: I think people still need this. What would they use otherwise? What
would be the image on civic stationery? If somebody were called upon
to sketch an image of Lansing, what would they paint? In New York there
are a lot of images, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State
Building. A number of things come immediately to mind. So I would say
if Lansing doesn't have something that convincingly does that, maybe
they should go and find the right piece of public art!
Q.: Michigan says it plans to restore Heizers piece. But "This
Equals That" may also never find its way out of storage. Do you
think restoration is probable?
A.: My guess, and my own experience, is that unless there's an individual
or an institution who would undertake the fundraising drive, then it's
probably over. I mean, unless there was somebody else in the governor's
or mayor's office, or the local museum or art council, who took it on
as a cause.
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