County supports restoring prominent sculpture
When the state of Michigan quietly dismantled Michael Heizer’s
sculpture, “This Equals That,” last year, it seemed like
the end of the story. America’s largest outdoor sculpture, whose
steel armatures were flown in by helicopter during the late 1970s, had
been long neglected, and was now being boxed away.
Shortly before leaving office, Republican Gov. John Engler approved
dismantling the sculpture, purchased 24 years ago for $540,00. The state
cited water damage to the underground parking lot beneath it as the
reason. Given its $1 billion budget deficit, the restoration of the
sculpture any time in the near future seemed unlikely. The state Department
for Management and Budget said in November that $1 million would be
needed for the restoration process.
courtesy of Michigan State University Archives and Historical
A view of ‘This Equals That’ circa 1980.
State Journal guest columnist, retired reporter John Albright, suggested
trucking the artwork to a landfill, to avoid the warehouse costs—advice
the State of Michigan appeared to take literally. The gunite shell of
Heizer’s sculpture was removed and destroyed during the dismantling.
The remaining steel framework was wrapped in flimsy plastic and set
out on a marshy meadow at the Michigan Department of Transportation
Repair Center in Mason. The framework’s exposure would damage
it perhaps irreparably within one winter, one art preservation expert
But it’s perhaps too early to write an obituary on “This
While the state appeared willing to let the piece rust, Ingham County
has been more proactive. On Feb. 10, the Board of Commissioners adopted
a resolution supporting the restoration of Heizer’s sculpture.
Commissioner Chris Swope, who chairs the committee that brought the
resolution to the attention of the full board, said he feels the sculpture
should without question be restored because it represents an important
part of Ingham County’s public arts heritage.
The resolution, which was also sent to Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s
office, suggests rebuilding the sculpture using a permanent surface
material, such as cor-ten steel, plate copper, or aluminum alloy, and
placing it “on a well-wrought plaza in downtown Lansing across
from Oldsmobile Park.”
Swope said the board adopted the resolution after receiving a letter
from Haslett resident Richard Harrington asking the commissioners to
take a stand.
on a sea of green glass
In a telephone interview, Harrington said he supports the restoration
of the Heizer sculpture because he thinks it is an excellent piece of
art. Harrington, who is a sculptor himself, pointed out that he wouldn’t
accept budget problems as an excuse for not beginning the restoration.
Harrington, 51, a Michigan native, sent letters to the state Department
of Management and Budget; the Department for History, Arts and Library;
the state attorney general; Lansing City Council; and the Board of Commissioners.
Harrington said that the site chosen by the arts commission in the 1970s,
west of the State Capitol, wasn’t ideal because it was hidden
from public view. Sheltered by two five-story buildings, the plaza was
unused by pedestrians and invisible to drivers passing by. “Even
state workers entered the buildings from the parking structure below,”
Harrington proposes that the City of Lansing lease the state property
across from Oldsmobile Park used as a parking lot. The state should
construct a solid, well-wrought, intrinsically beautiful plaza, he elaborated,
and the Heizer sculpture should be reconstructed in copper.
Harrington noted that permanent, native Michigan copper contain beautiful
chromes, from bright to mossy green. Because it was a natural resource
of Michigan, money spent would be invested into the state economy. Using
copper would protect the artwork against the impact of weather, while
the original gunite surface had deteriorated more easily.
The location across from Oldsmobile Park would offer excellent vehicular
and pedestrian views, Harrington said. “’This Equals That,’
expertly restored in copper, sited alone on a solid plaza with ample
space and in full public view, will be a jewel for the people of Michigan
for years to come,” he wrote in a recent letter to Heizer, who
resides in Hiko, Nev.
Harrington suggests surfacing the plaza in green glass, made from recycled
bottles, which are not accepted in the county’s recycling program.
“Copper on a sea of green glass would be stunning,” he said.
While state officials have repeatedly said that a restoration wasn’t
feasible in the near future, there are now signs indicating that this
attitude may have changed. William Anderson, the director of the state
Department for History, Arts and Library, said in a telephone interview
last week that the preservation of the Heizer sculpture was being given
“priority,” a term he had not used in previous conversations.
And he had three new pieces of news to share relating to the artwork’s
First, the Department of Management and Budget had assured him that
“This Equals That” was now well protected from the elements.
In November 2003 the metal framework of the sculpture (which was not
designed to withstand direct exposure to the elements) had been almost
entirely unprotected. Plastic that meant to protect it was mostly ripped
off and was flapping loosely from the base of the piece. Currently,
the steel framework is still stored outside.
Anderson’s second piece of good news was that the sculpture might
soon be transferred to an indoor location. The state is in discussion
with a donor who has offered the possibility of storing the one-half
acre public sculpture in a warehouse.
Anderson also said he plans to invite a group of people, including members
of the special arts commission and benefactors, to discuss “how
we could come up with a plan to restore the piece, and where it might
Four members of the original arts commission that selected Heizer said
they were concerned about the disrespect shown toward Heizer’s
work. They also wondered how the State of Michigan could remove the
piece without first discussing it with the artist or the public.
There’s some evidence that taste may have played a role in the
decision. John Truscott, a former press secretary to Engler, commented
in a radio interview on WKAR in December that he had always disliked
the sculpture. “It looked like something that an elementary school
kid could have done,” Truscott said. “It didn’t have
much finesse. And most people just didn’t get it.” Truscott
said when he heard that the sculpture was going to be dismantled, he
and several friends exchanged e-mails jokingly discussing how they might
discard the pieces, suggesting concrete burials for road projects, or
using it as a marine sanctuary reef. Truscott suggested auctioning the
sculpture on Ebay or a state Web site.
Mary Ann Keeler, vice chairwoman of the Special Arts Commission appointed
in 1975 by former Gov. William Milliken that selected Heizer, didn’t
see anything to laugh about. The dedicated philanthropist from Grand
Rapids said that she was “furious” about former Gov. John
Engler’s approval of the action. “There’s money to
take it down, but none to put it back up,” Keeler said.
Keeler and her late husband, Miner S. Keeler, have been large beneficiaries
of the arts. In the last several years, they generously donated to several
libraries, museums, and health organizations in Michigan, including
their most recent gift, of $1 million to Grand Rapids’ Grand Valley
State University, for a library. President George H.W. Bush appointed
Mrs. Keeler to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.
When pressed to explain why there were no immediate plans for restoration,
state officials claimed that providing money for this would be a huge
obstacle. State records, however, show that the state had fewer problems
funding the dismantling, on which Michigan spent $593,157, according
to records City Pulse obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Although a final breakdown of all costs wasn’t available, a cost
estimate by Christman, the construction company that was hired, reveals
that $272,000 was estimated for demolition and steel salvage. An additional
$160,000 was estimated for design, project management, contingency and
fees. Finally, the plaza restoration would cost the state $45,000.
If Harrington’s proposal isn’t instigated, there’s
another Michigan resident who says he would like to take on the cause
of “This Equals That.” St. Johns resident Jim “Peppermint”
Crosby said he has a good plan for the restoration of the sculpture.
Crosby, who owns Crosby Mint Farms, is planning to create a two-acre
community park and says he is searching for a major piece of public
art. The park, which he says would be large enough to accommodate 1,500
people, would be open to community groups and private organizations
for theater plays, concerts, pow wows, family reunions, weddings, and
A Lakota Indian woman who is an employee of Crosby triggered the farmer’s
interest in the idea. Crosby said she told him she had developed a spiritual
relationship to the sculpture after seeing photos of the monumental
artwork in City Pulse. She contacted her elders in Minnesota, who advised
that the sculpture should be saved.
Crosby said he strongly believes in preservation, education and cultural
diversity. The mint farmer said he wants to explore the Heizer restoration
idea carefully and then plans to contact Heizer. “This sculpture
has so much character. We really need to preserve it,” he said.
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