LIFESTYLE

Artists outraged by removal of groundbreaking work along Des Moines pond

Feb 29, 2024, 10:02 PM

David and Stephanie Joiner pose by part of an artwork, called Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Sunday, ...

David and Stephanie Joiner pose by part of an artwork, called Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Des Moines, Iowa. The Des Moines Arts Center plans to rip out the roughly 30-year-old artwork that lines a pond in a historic city park. The Joiners, who live about a mile from the pond, have been helping to organize local opposition to the artwork’s removal, including launching a website and simply engaging with people at the site to explain why parts are roped off. (AP Photo/Scott McFetridge)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Scott McFetridge)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A Des Moines arts organization is preparing to rip out a groundbreaking artwork that lines a pond in a historic city park, surprising the New York artist who created the work decades ago and leading to an outpouring of opposition by other artists and local residents.

The decision to remove the work — a series of walkways, shelters and viewing sites called Greenwood Pond: Double Site designed by artist Mary Miss — has outraged arts advocates nationally and surprised local residents, who have grown accustomed to meandering through the site. But the Des Moines Art Center, which oversees the artwork, said the largely wooden structures need repairs costing $2.6 million, and future maintenance would cost millions more.

Art Center Director Kelly Baum said there is no way to raise enough money to pay for the work, so demolition will begin this spring.

“It’s difficult and it’s challenging and it’s very, very unfortunate for me, for the board, for the staff and for the city, and I know for Mary,” Baum said.

The decision has stunned Miss, who saw the permanent exhibit completed in 1996 as a high point in her long career as a land artist. With land art, the artists create works using land formations and natural features like rocks and plants.

Although demolition seems eminent, Miss said she thinks the work will somehow be saved.

“I would be shocked if it was just torn out,” Miss said. “It doesn’t deserve it. People don’t deserve to have that happen.”

The art center invited Miss, an internationally known land artist, in the 1980s to propose a permanent work and she suggested they overhaul a much-loved but dilapidated pond down a hill from the art center in the city’s 130-year-old Greenwood Park. The park is sandwiched between some of the capital city’s most opulent neighborhoods and connects to an even larger park and miles of walking trails.

After talking with neighbors, art patrons, gardening club members and naturalists, Miss designed Greenwood Pond: Double Site on a 6.5-acre (2.6-hectare) strip around the water. Completed over six years, the work lets people become immersed in a wetland with numerous viewing sites, from a sunken walkway that put the water at eye level to an elevated platform that gives a sweeping view of the pond.

The work received national acclaim and landscape art and architecture students now study the site to understand how Miss melded the wooden structures with the natural environment.

The work was built with metal mesh, concrete and most visibly treated lumber that over the years deteriorated in Iowa’s icy winters and hot, humid summers. The art center paid for a restoration in 2015 but said after nearly a decade, an engineering study had determined that the work has deteriorated to the point of being hazardous in spots.

Last month, the center blocked access to some parts of the work and soon after notified Miss that it would all be removed.

Miss said the work clearly needs repairs, but she noted her contract with the art center specified that Greenwood Pond: Double Site was a permanent work, not one to be torn out after three decades. She also questioned how the art center let it deteriorate, its cost estimate for repairs and why it’s not willing to launch a fundraising campaign to finance needed fixes.

Miss asked the art center to make public the engineering report that details problems and the cost of repairs.

Baum said the center won’t make its internal documents public.

Numerous artists, organizations and Des Moines residents have joined with Miss and demanded that the art center stop its plans to demolish the work. Stephanie Daggett Joiner and her husband, David Joiner, who live about a mile from the pond, have been helping to organize local opposition to the artwork’s removal, including launching a website.

Daggett Joiner said she would see removal of the work as a personal loss.

“I think it’s really incredible in the summer when the flowers are blooming and you have the prairie and the birds. It’s delightful to many senses,” she said. “It gives you a sense of peace.”

R.J. Tursi, who was at the pond with his two young children, said one of the reasons his family lives in the neighborhood is to be close to the park.

“We see ducks down here. They see frogs and turtles, different birds like red wing blackbirds and mourning doves,” Tursi said. “The idea of a ton of construction coming in and ripping this stuff out is disappointing.”

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington-based education and advocacy organization, has made preserving Miss’ Greenwood Pond work a priority, informing other artists and seeking media attention. Later this month, the group will host an online program bringing together land artists to discuss the vulnerability of such works.

Charles A. Birnbaum, the foundation’s president and CEO, said the work was a milestone in the land art movement. Most early land artists were men, so Miss’ role in the field was especially noteworthy, Birnbaum said, and makes the potential loss in Des Moines even more troubling.

“What we see is we have these situations where the landscape is malnourished, the landscape is not cared for, it’s underserved and then the landscape itself is blamed for not looking better,” he said.

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Artists outraged by removal of groundbreaking work along Des Moines pond