Governments seem inept at commissioning public art. They’re apparently just as bad at selling it.
|Zero and One's best side is from inside the Federal Building. Courtesy Stan Dolega.|
I was once commissioned to paint a panel I knew would be buried. This made the painting more performance than permanent, since anything that goes underground rapidly returns to dust. I did it on copper flashing and hoped for the best. But I was resigned to its ultimate destruction; that was understood from the beginning.
I’m reconciled to running across my work in the resale market. I hope my clients don’t send it to the library bric-a-brac sale, but one never knows. I once bought a house with a print lying in the debris on the attic floor. It was by an important 20th century lithographer. If I’d just swept as I intended, the world would have lost that print and I wouldn’t have made a few thousand dollars.
Maquette for Zero and One, Stan Dolega, wood, painted paperboard and plastic, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum. The piece has already been cut off from its setting by the addition of a fence.
What’s in our museums and collections is only a small fraction of the artwork that’s been produced over centuries. Even among the works considered masterpieces at their creation, there’s been terrific attrition. The great Ghent Altarpiece has narrowly escaped destruction several times. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and the Bildersturm stripped away the greatest altarpieces of northern Europe. In fact, iconoclasm is art’s worst enemy.
Enter the Federal government. When it began its ambitious public art programs in the 1970s, it stipulated that, if you remove artwork from one part of a Federal building, you need to replace it somewhere else. Apparently, that’s not really what they meant. The art goes with the building into perpetuity, and future owners can’t destroy it, even if it gets in the way of the parking lot they need to build.
|Zero and One in situ. Another question is why a multimillion-dollar post office building was obsolete after only 45 years.|
Artist Stan Dolega was paid $19,000 in 1981 to create Zero and One for the Federal Building in Wenatchee, Washington. (That’s $55,000 in 2018 money.) It’s an earthwork in contemporary form. Yes, it looks a little dated 37 years later, but that's part of the life-cycle of all art.
The building was eventually auctioned off and then sold to the city, which wants to raze the artwork. It’s difficult to mow, and it’s now fenced off so kids don’t wear it down skateboarding. On the other hand, it’s small enough that it’s only going to net a few parking spots at most.
Jonathan Turley was really very funny on the subject. But Dolega inevitably heard about Turley’s piece, was hurt by its tone and the scathing comments that followed.
“To my way of thinking (the article) was amazingly hostile to the piece itself and, of course, indirectly that means to me because I made it,” Dolega said. There’s a lesson in that about the power of words in the Electronic Age.
|A closer streetside view, before the fence went up. Courtesy Stan Dolega.|
There’s an unbridgeable gap here: Hizzoner wants the space for something else, but there’s no way to move the work.
Which leaves us in the very uncomfortable position of deciding whether to euthanize a work of public art. Unlike tyrants, democratic governments seem uniquely inept at commissioning public art. They’re apparently just as bad at unloading it.