Saturday, October 11, 2003

Writing on the wall for sculpture

Neighbors, artist angry at plan to raze brick 'stars'

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] The city condemned Double Star: Antares in East Hyde Park because inspectors said the sculpture is unstable and deteriorating.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
HYDE PARK - The city of Cincinnati has condemned one of its public sculptures - a series of brick walls in East Hyde Park - and plans to destroy it despite opposition from the neighborhood and artist.

The episode is prompting debate about the sustainability of public art at a time when the city is trying to encourage more of it. The International Sculpture Center has named Cincinnati its first International Sculpture City - a distinction being celebrated at a party tonight in the Brighton Art District.

"I don't know of any subject that is as fever-pitched as this one right now, all of a sudden," said Councilman Jim Tarbell, the chairman of the Arts and Culture Committee.

Double Star: Antares is a series of 27 brick walls at Erie and Marburg avenues. Designed by Athena Tacha, a Greek-born sculptor considered a pioneer of the public art movement, the 15-year-old artwork pays homage to the double star discovered by the nearby Mount Lookout Observatory.

But city building inspectors say the sculpture is becoming unstable because of a faulty design and deterioration, and so the Cincinnati Recreation Commission wants to bulldoze it.

The East Hyde Park work looks like a maze of random brick walls from the street. From above, it's designed to look like two stars - one imploding and one exploding, the artist said.

Tacha, reached at her home in Washington, D.C., denied that there was anything wrong with the design, which includes steel reinforcement bars throughout the brick walls. She said she had a structural engineer approve the plans.

"A car will rust if you don't take care of it," she said. She accused the city of "15 years of neglect."

Tom Hayes of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Council said most residents agree. "Community people put their own money into build it. If the city had maintained it, it wouldn't be an issue now. We doubt if they've maintained it at all."

James R. Garges, director of the recreation commission, said the city had only $5,000 set aside for maintenance in 1988. Even if the city had used that money to coat the brickwork with a protective sealant, it would have extended its life by only a few years, he said.

At this point, the only alternative is to demolish and rebuild it - at an estimated cost of $110,000.

Tacha's work was constructed in 1988 for about $30,000 - money that was privately raised. It was the end result of a long campaign by the neighborhood to save the small park once known as the Mudhole.

"My belief in public sculpture is that it should stay there for many more generations to appreciate it," she said. "You never know what the art of the past will contribute to the future."

That's her artistic argument. She also has a legal one: The sculpture was commissioned as a permanent work of art, and destroying it is a breach of contract. She said she's prepared to sue to stop the demolition.

Tacha has been down this road before. A college in Fort Myers, Fla., tore down a similar Tacha structure, Marianthe, in 2000 because it was deemed a safety hazard. In 1999, the Sarasota City Commission backed down from a plan to remove a work called Memory Path after Tacha threatened a lawsuit.

The Hyde Park sculpture predates the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which gives sculptors certain rights to protect their work.

An additional problem for Double Star: Antares is that it sits next to a city playground. Jan Seidel, a former Hyde Park resident who helped raise money for the sculpture, said the artist spent a lot of time talking to people in the neighborhood to understand what would be appropriate there.

"It was also designed to be a play labyrinth for children and families, and anything that's that dangerous cannot be open to the public," Seidel said. "But it was such a communitywide effort that the community should be involved in deciding what should replace it, or even whether it should be removed."

Recreation Commission officials will meet with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Council next Tuesday to discuss the situation. But the city wants to discuss how to replace Tacha's work. Saving it isn't economically feasible, Garges said.

"If they really want to save it, they have to come up with a plan to fund it," Garges said. "If they can do that and that's what they want, we don't have any problem with that."

As the city begins to encourage more public sculpture, the maintenance issue has become a problem.

The Cincinnati Park Board said it's maintaining a catalog of 31 major works of art - sculptures, statues and fountains - on park property. New works aren't accepted until their maintenance is assured.

The park board killed - and then reinstated - a seven-story Crystalline Tower at Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park earlier this year because of maintenance concerns. A $450,000 donated sculpture from Munich, Germany - Cincinnati's sister city - now faces a similar review.

Not all sculpture is in parks. Some, like the Hyde Park sculpture, are in playgrounds. Others are on thoroughfares, in plazas and at public buildings.

"The key is, you have to make a determination when you select a piece of public artwork: Is it sustainable?" Garges said. "It has to be looked at not just from an art perspective, but an engineering perspective. Is it safe? And then ultimately it comes down to someone has to put aside the funds from the beginning to take care of the whole public art inventory."

Patricia Renick, one of the city's most prominent sculptors, said advance funding for art maintenance inevitably comes out of an artist's commission. If the work is placed on city property, the city should take care of it, she said.

"Some of the sculptures here have not been well maintained by the city," she said, noting two on Central Parkway that have fallen into disrepair.

"Someone has to clean it, maintain it, light it properly. It's a two-way street. It is very discouraging. When the work comes into the public domain, who is responsible for maintaining it?"

Enquirer art critic Marilyn Bauer contributed to this story. E-mail

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