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Trenchant in Trenton: Athena Tacha’s “Green Acres” Rescued from Planned Destruction

Athena Tacha, “Green Acres,” 1985-87

The 11th-hour announcement today that sculptor Athena Tacha‘s “Green Acres” in Trenton, NJ, has been saved from the imminent blow of the wrecker’s ball struck a welcome blow, instead, for artists’ rights. But it also triggered traumatic flashbacks to a less happily resolved conflict between public art and public taste.

As Ken Johnson suggested in his Friday NY Times review, Eye Candy or Eyesore, some temporarily installed public artworks come across as the former; others as the latter. Those who regard certain works as “woefully outdated, more tacky than visionary” (as Johnson described the Niki de Saint Phalle giants now cavorting on Park Avenue’s median), there’s always the comfort of knowing that the affront to one’s personal taste and invasion of one’s space will be of limited duration.

Not so for the many site-specific works that are intended as permanent. The history of public art commissions in the U.S. is rife with disputes between the supporters and the abhorers who want to see these highly visible interlopers forcibly evicted.

Perhaps the most infamous instance was the battle over Richard Serra‘s “Tilted Arc,” bravely commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration’s Art-in-Architecture program and unceremoniously removed in 1981 from New York’s Federal Plaza. Government workers in Lower Manhattan immediately complained about this monumental (and, to them, unsightly) disruption of their public space; some even alleged that the 12-foof-high steel wall posed security risks by obstructing law enforcers’ views of lurking miscreants.

That legendary contretemps came to mind when Tacha contacted me last May about the imminent threat of the removal of “Green Acres,” her site-specific outdoor sculpture and seating area in the courtyard of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in the state capital, funded through New Jersey’s “Percent for Art” program. Since I live only 80 minutes from Trenton, I thought I should personally eyeball it in its current somewhat delapidated state before writing about it. I somehow never managed to make that trip.

Happily, others took up the cause, and plans to dismantle the structure this month have now been officially scuttled. Credit is due to the above-linked concerned journalists, to preservationists at the Cultural Landscape Foundation, Preservation New Jersey and ArtPride New Jersey, and especially to the feisty tenacity of the artist herself.

The announcement linked at the top also credits New Jersey Governor (and Republican Convention keynoter) Chris Christie for reversing the demolition decision.

Here are two shots of “Green Acres” (the name of the state’s open-space preservation program) that were taken last winter by Tacha:

Photo by Athena Tacha

Photo by Athena Tacha

The online petition
that sought the Department of Environmental Protection’s protection of its site-specific
sculpture provides some background on the now aborted plan for removal:

Department of Environmental Protection has failed to maintain this
seminal public art work properly and is now proposing to demolish it and
replace it with new construction at the cost of $1 million. The
Department of Property Management and Construction has decided that
“brick cracks, chipped corners and sunken slate slabs” now pose a safety
hazard for employees seeking “safe and expeditious evacuation.” The
Division has asked the artist to remove the sculpture at her own expense [emphasis added] before the State begins removal in August.

Here’s what the artist wrote to me last May about the plight of “Green Acres,” in the (disappointed) hope that I would publicly join her cause:

The work is still in reasonable shape (while their surrounding brick pavement is a mess!), except that they lately planted a tree in each planter, which is totally wrong, not only for scale, but because the roots will split the brick walls. I wrote to them to remove the trees, and instead they decided to destroy the entire work! The work cost over $400,000 to build. My fee for everything was $50,000. It was all State money, since I won a competition of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

My contract said:
“The State agrees that it will not intentionally alter, modify or change the art work in anyway but may remove the same [emphasis added]. The State shall be responsible for the proper cleaning, maintenance and protection of the artwork [emphasis added]. All repairs and restorations to the artwork which are made during the artist’s lifetime shall have the artist’s approval.”

Obviously, the contract was geared to “object sculptures” that can be moved to another location or storage. My work was commissioned as site-specific (and, by extension, non-removable).

As described by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, “Green Acres” features “46 slabs of green granite onto which photographs of state
landscapes, plants and animals (many of them endangered species) have
been sandblasted. Crescent shaped planters with stepped seating ring the edges.”

I still hope to make it down to see “Green Acres” in Trenton, one of these days. But now I think I should wait to see it in all its glory, fully restored. The state now plans eventually to fund its refurbishment.

Procrastination sometimes does have its rewards.

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