A Land Artist’s Work Evades Demolition

A work of environmental art by Mary Miss has evaded demolition — for now. A judge in the U.S. District Court in Des Moines on Friday granted her request for a temporary restraining order that would bar the Des Moines Art Center, the museum that commissioned the land art installation, from dismantling it. The museum maintains it has become a safety hazard and that the resources to repair it are not available.

The decision, the Art Center said in a statement, amounts to “a court-ordered stalemate.”

While the judge, Stephen H. Locher, found that destroying the work, “Greenwood Pond: Double Site” (1989-1996), would violate the Art Center’s contract with the artist, he also said that Miss could not force the museum to restore it to its original condition. He wrote, “The end result is therefore an unsatisfying status quo: the artwork will remain standing (for now) despite being in a condition that no one likes but that the court cannot order anyone to change.”

The lawsuit is the latest twist in a fight over the fate of “Greenwood Pond,” which has highlighted the difficulty of preserving large-scale public artworks, especially for smaller institutions. Located on the grounds of a city-owned park next to the museum, the installation is a collection of sloping walkways, wooden sitting areas, huts and towers that encourage visitors to engage with the landscape. Over the years, the wood has degraded substantially, and the Art Center estimates that it would cost between $2 million and $2.6 million to restore it. (Miss contests that, but has not provided another figure.)

In an interview on Tuesday, Miss said, “I don’t know why the museum wouldn’t come to me at this point and try to work this out instead of spending more money on legal fees.”

Having visited “Greenwood Pond: Double Site” while in Des Moines to testify, she said she felt a newfound appreciation for the work. “I just can’t imagine this whole thing going south at this point,” she said.

Amy Day, a spokeswoman for the Art Center, said that while the museum considers its next move, it will keep portions of the site blocked off and “engage the City of Des Moines to address public safety.” In his ruling, the judge noted that the city, which was not a party to the litigation, has the authority to deem the work a safety hazard and compel its demolition.

If the city does not intervene, the parties do not reach a settlement and the case goes to trial, the outcome could hinge on whether land art qualifies as sculpture. Miss argued that the demolition plans would violate the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which empowers artists to protect prominent work from destruction. But the judge warned that “Greenwood Pond” “is not a ‘painting, drawing, print, or sculpture’ and therefore is not entitled to protection under VARA.”

The question of whether land art is sculpture may end up pitting lawyers for the museum against some art historians. Charles Birnbaum, the president and chief executive of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit that has been an advocate of preserving Miss’s work, said: “We expect that expert testimony at trial — if it gets to that point — will establish that land art is sculpture.”

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