Monday, October 01, 2007

VARA Controversy on the West Coast Too

Full disclosure: I'm friends with the artist Sharon Louden, whose installation "Reflecting Tips, 2001" is at the heart of this controversy. I've been aware of this ongoing effort to resolve this dispute for some time and, of course, because she's my friend and because I think she's right, am inclined to take her side in this. Read the following with that in mind.

Even though the Buchel vs. Mass MoCA issue is settling down (at least until the promised appeal, if that materializes), that doesn't mean the debate over what the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 actually means is settled. From the other side of the country comes the story about the rights of a corporation (Yahoo) clashing with the rights of an artist (Sharon Louden). Kelly Crow offers the details in today's Wall Street Journal:

When Yahoo moved into its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters six years ago, it kept peace with local authorities by buying and installing $500,000 worth of public artworks.

Now Yahoo says it is suffering for its art.

On its front lawn, the technology giant installed a work by New York artist Sharon Louden that paired real wetlands grass with artificial cattail-like reeds. The grass grew. The city complained. Last year, to rein in its overgrown yard, Yahoo dispatched a grounds crew with weed whackers.

Artificial reeds were cut, bent and twisted. The artist, horrified, responded with letters from her lawyers, which were met with letters from Yahoo's lawyers. "They turned my art into a bad miniature golf course," Ms. Louden says.

As negotiations continue over who controls Yahoo's front yard, the company has found itself caught at the intersection of two artist-friendly laws -- one that made the company install art, and a second that essentially prohibits the company from messing with it.

Like Sunnyvale, many cities across the U.S. have embraced the "Percent for Art" movement. Typically, cities ask or require companies to allocate 1% of their construction budget to buying and prominently displaying art, often in exchange for tax cuts or use of public land. In Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., such ordinances are responsible for dozens of commissions. Typically, city committees approve the potential purchases, while owners are responsible for maintaining the art.
As meddlesome as that may sound for a company, keep in mind that 1) the "Percent for Art" deal is made "often in exchange for tax cuts or use of public land" and 2) back when Yahoo was moving in to their Sunnyvale location, they were very enthusiastic about the art they were acquiring:
[Yahoo] formed an art committee that rejected dozens of proposals before selecting three, including a series of bronze doors around the campus (a nod to Yahoo's role as an Internet portal) and a revolving metal sculpture in a fountain. The committee also tapped Ms. Louden, whose post-Minimalist work has been collected by insurer Progressive Corp. and AT&T.

Ms. Louden proposed creating a landscape that would mimic the natural wetlands that border Yahoo's campus, but with a high-tech twist. She offered to plant 2,500 white wires, clumped into grassy patches and topped with 2-inch reflective squares. During the day, the wires would blend into the surrounding grass. At night, the reflectors would catch the headlights of passing cars on Matilda Avenue and her marsh "grass" would glow.

Mary Ritchey, an art consultant Yahoo hired to help with the project, says the idea was a hit with the committee. "They didn't want anything fancy or flashy," Ms. Ritchey says. "Her piece was beautiful because it was so subtle."
This strikes me as a story that centers around a series of events defined mostly by bad timing. Dennis Taniguchi, the landscape architect Yahoo hired (and who choose the grass for the installation [i.e., that grew too high and led to the city asking Yahoo to trim it back]) had ignored Ms. Louden's suggestions on which grass was best and offered in his defence:
"We were making a lot of decisions quickly," Mr. Taniguchi says. "We weren't sitting around pondering grass."
Then, after the work had been severely damaged, Terry Semel, then Yahoo's chairman and CEO, had his people call the artist to report he was unhappy with the work and wanted it removed. Coming after the work was damaged, it's difficult to assess whether Mr. Semel's feelings about the work are based on the way it originally looked or how it looked after weed-whackers altered it (the WSJ reports that at least half the artificial wires had been cut). He reportedly wouldn't comment for the WSJ article.

Keep in mind that the concept for the piece was to reference the natural wetlands around the property. Here is what the piece looked like before the weed-whackers were sent in (top) and then after Yahoo attempted to mitigate the damage (on their own, without the artist's involvement) by replacing the long grass with something else (bottom):

What's most confusing about the story is how Mr. Semel's original feeling that the work should be removed evolved to the company's current statement that, with their own alterations, they're now happy with it and it can stay. OK, so that's perhaps not all that confusing. Mr. Semel is no longer the CEO. He's been replaced by Jerry Yang, who isn't commenting either though. As the article notes, Sharon called Mr. Yang in an effort to resolve the issue without lawyers, but he didn't return her call.

To my eye, there's nothing about the alterations to the work that would justify Yahoo claiming they own a piece by Sharon Louden. The central concept, as well as the resolved aesthetic, of the work has been lost. As Sharon put it, they changed it into a bad putt-putt course.

Labels: VARA


Blogger Mark said...

This is a good example of why I have such respect for my colleagues that choose to attempt public art projects. It can be a very time consuming and exspensive process to submit yourself too, worse if you have to apease a community group or Government panel, but look what can happen down the road.

They really put themselves out there.

10/01/2007 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Yes, indeed. Besides the number of hoops you have to jump through to get a piece installed, nobody wants to maintain it, and they don't want you coming in to maintain it either.

The business with 'what grass to plant' chaps my hide. The artist knew what grass would be best, grass was an integral part of the piece, and they ignored her input and planted a different kind??!!! That's ridiculous! Any decent ecologist knows that the wrong kind of grass can destroy an ecosystem, as has been happening in California for decades!

Please give my deepest regards and sympathy to Sharon. If I were her, I would simply go and remove the piece myself. It looks horrible now, and does not properly represent her vision.

10/01/2007 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

Yes, and to rely on the corporation, school, or public institution to maintain your vision. How nerve wracking! It doesn't surprise me,having worked in a corporate environment, that an artist's sensibilities aren't considered. Especially ones this subtle. Great concept tho.

I wonder if there are corporations with better track records at maintaining public art installations?

10/01/2007 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I wonder if there are corporations with better track records at maintaining public art installations?

That's a really good question. My initial guess would be that corporations with CEOs who are involved in the arts would be better at it, but given that Terry Semel is highly involved in the arts, I'm not sure that always makes that big a difference.

I'm not privvy to any additional information about Mr. Semel's feelings about this work than what's reported in the WSJ, and I highly doubt he was consulted when the decision was made to take the weed whackers to the installation, but I am surprised he hasn't gotten out ahead of this story in some manner.

10/01/2007 11:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The white things look the same to me, and grass she didn't choose has been replaced by a different grass she didn't choose.

Maybe if she had stood her ground with the original landscape architect, the argument could be made that the work has now been mutilated.

10/01/2007 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Maybe if she had stood her ground with the original landscape architect, the argument could be made that the work has now been mutilated.

I think you may have hit upon an argument the Yahoo defense team might make if this goes to court. There remains however the not-minor matter of the entire concept referencing the wetlands. Now granted, I haven't been to see the wetlands in Sunnyvale, CA, but I'm willing to bet they're not manicured to putting green standards.

In other words, just because one grass that would grow too long was substituted for grasses that wouldn't require the maintenance the city eventually called for, doesn't imply to my mind that the original piece wasn't true to the vision, nor that the piece hasn't since been multilated.

10/01/2007 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Speaking about CEO's that are involved with art...I just went to visit the new ARKELL museum in Canahajoharie NY this weekend. What a Place!
Arkell was the founder of Beech Nut...and he left tons of money to this little town for trust, along with a hefty art collection, that includes several works by Homer, Inness, etc..., in order to promote culture in his Beechnut workplace. Arkell did this in the early 1800's, and here we are over a century later, appreciating his efforts, in a gallery of grand proportions that has been built with the trust money.
This is an exception to the rule, however!! Can you imagine your CEO buying Homers' watercolors for his workers to look at in this day and age????

10/01/2007 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Ries said...

There's an old saying-
When you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas...

Having been involved in public art for 25 years or so now, I find that it applies particularly well to this field.

Unfortunately, once you step out of the gallery, the reverent respect shown to artwork all falls away mighty fast.

The corporation was legally required to put in public art- they were unwilling participants in this whole thing.
I have done several projects like this, and the corporate interest can range from sympathetic to openly hostile.
The landscape architect, on the other hand, was hired directly by the client, and has more of their trust and authority generally than the artist does. The artist cannot "face down" the landscape architect very easily- the landscape architect works totally independently, with his or her own contracts, budgets, and allegiances. I have clashed several times with landscape architects, as well as project architects, who resented artists being involved at all- most believe that their work is plenty artistic enough, and no artist is needed or wanted.
I even got kicked entirely off a job once because a New York based, celebrity landscape architect didnt like my work. His designs replaced mine, and art went elsewhere.

What all this means is that when you design public artworks, you must be entirely self reliant- the work must be designed to not only survive neglect and lack of maintenance, but outright vandalism and damage like this.

Public art involves a lot of compromises that studio art does not.
And some artists are just not cut out for it- a lot of very good artists with integrity are just not willing to change their vision to accomodate graffiti, building codes, weather, vandalism, and lowbrow tastes.

This particular work probably just has a finite lifespan. Designed of materials that can be damaged by a weedwacker, it is unrealistic to expect it to last decades in an uncaring climate of a client who didnt REALLY want it in the first place.

There is nothing wrong with that.
Just make sure you get paid.

10/01/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

What are "artificial reeds"?

10/01/2007 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What are "artificial reeds"?

High intensity reflective sheeting, powder coated steel. Source

10/01/2007 01:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Ries...some good sense for a change.

10/01/2007 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Judging from the photos, I think it's time to declare this an ephemeral conceptual piece, and take it down. No one is well served by what's there now. Except maybe neighborhood dogs.

10/01/2007 02:32:00 PM  
Anonymous ries said...

One thing that occurs to me- she may "succeed" in court- to be somehow morally vindicated as "right".
But if the work is compromised, or outright destroyed, its kind of a hollow victory.

I would rather have the artwork hang in there, and survive, as opposed to win a pyrric victory in court.

In looking at the link to the artist's website, I see that she is primarily a studio artist, and this appears to be her only public art piece.

There is a learning curve- public art requires different approaches, both conceptually and physically, than studio art, and I would assume she learned quite a bit from this. As an installation for a show, say, Documenta, this is a wonderful piece. I like it quite a bit.
But looking at it with the dispassionate eye of someone who has repaired damaged work, and had pieces outright destroyed, I can tell you it wasnt going to last a long time anyway.

Powdercoating, for example, is just not a longlasting outdoor finish. In perfect conditions, you may get 10 years from it- but in most climates in the USA, considerably less. In places like Phoenix, or downtown San Francisco, it can craze, peel, and fade within a year or two. And it is economically ridiculous to refinish small wires like this- it would require sandblasting each one, probably after burning off the powder in a burnout oven- the repowder alone would probably cost much more than the intial cost of materials and coating.

There is a reason why the sculptures we still have from 2000 years ago are made of virtually indestructable materials like stone or bronze.

Rust, as Neil Young sings, Never Sleeps.

10/01/2007 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So the response seems to be rather split with regards to whether it makes sense to pursue to keep it up (and I assume restore it to its original state) or insist it be taken down now.

Knowing how hard Sharon worked on that piece, I hate to see it disappear. I appreciate the technical point of view Ries is offering (truly...many thanks), but I suspect Yahoo has the funds available to adequately restore the piece when needed.

This does raise the constant questions that a good deal of public art raises with regards to shifting tastes/interests/funds to maintain work, as well as what moral/social/cultural responsibility the acquiring institution has toward the artwork, if any.

10/01/2007 02:42:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

er, make that "ethical" rather than "moral" responsibility above.

10/01/2007 02:43:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Ries writes that "some artists are just not cut out for [public projects]." Indeed, but I would think those who do gravitate to such work would be excited by the possibility of augmentation via ", vandalism, and lowbrow tastes." Works installed in a public venue, like works on paper, seem to me in no small part about their temporality.

Of course, "building codes" or owner negligence are never something an artist expects to contend with and I empathize with Sharon on those counts.

10/01/2007 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

look at what happens when the public doesn't like a public art work....

even bronze sculptures can get stolen and melted for scrap...grafitti...altered

sometimes life comes at you hard.

Harsh. Realm.

See you on the flippitty flop.

10/01/2007 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Maybe it makes me a bad person, but the takeaway idea I get from both this and the B¨chel mess is, for both artists and corporations looking for art to throw money at: Stick with paintings.

10/01/2007 05:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Ries said...

As a sculptor, I gotta say I find paintings boring.

Ok, Ok, just kidding, I am actually working on a show right now where I am doing a bunch of small, 2D, painted stuff.

But really, paintings are great. And some painters do some wonderful public art. But sticking with paintings? Thats like saying that we shouldnt read philosophy, because its so much easier to read comic books.

Public art, when it works, is great.
However, just like painters, 95% of public artists arent that great.
Why do you painters like those kids with big eyes so much? Whats up with those clowns? And how come every time I check into a motel, the paintings are so bad?

I have been making pieces for public places since the late 70's. I enjoy the challenges of making a piece that will survive in an adverse environment. I know a bunch of other artists who do too. And while I will make no claims about the quality of my own work, I know quite a few artists who have done really great public pieces.

Temporality (is that really a word?) is a fine theme to work with if thats what you want.

But permanence, at least on the relatively small scale of time we humans deal in, is perfectly possible for sculptors who work in metal, stone, glass, even fibers and paint.
There are Aubusson tapestries that take your breath away, that date to the late 14th century.
Stained glass windows hundreds of years old.
And bronzes from well before christ.

Its certainly possible.

As for forcing Yahoo to restore the piece- well, good luck. If it was me, I would be looking to the next piece, not spending years agonizing over the last one.
If she can get some money, and an acknowledgement that they were at fault, thats good for her, and a good legal precedent to set for future artists.
But I dont think its realistic to expect moral vindication- this is a corporation you are dealing with.

10/01/2007 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

she could embed those fibers in clear resin blocks, add permanence and it wouldnt be too distracting.

10/01/2007 08:33:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Getting the right kind of grass is CLEARLY the best option. Resin is cute but then you might as well install landscape lighting too.

How did they convince Virgin to put that steaming colon in Union Square?

10/01/2007 11:49:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

At least Yahoo didn't surround it with tarps.

In a May 21 letter to the artist's attorney, Mr. Ravazzini wrote that the company had been "willing to dedicate reasonable resources" to working with Ms. Louden to improve the site. But the artists' legal threats "handcuffed" the company, he says.

I find the audacity of yahoo's legal director to write a letter of this nature after according to the article Ms. Louden had been told not to bother booking a flight is a distortion of the truth in the least. Why do these weasels lie, the truth always comes out and it just makes them look worse.

I'm assuming that Ms. Louden would be happy to restore the piece, but as far as fixing the twisted rods I'd say that would be impossible, but being they aren't necessarily something that are unique crafted creations on their own more a mass replicated design by Ms. Louden, I'm sure she can make new ones, or have them made, however they were originally produced. As far as longevity, a bronze plated stainless steel rod would do the trick.

I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she would work to find a solution that stays true to her original intention, and it seems Yahoo is not looking to do that at this point, in fact they maybe should have contacted her when they were requested to cut the grass, which is confusing as to why because according to the article

Last fall, a city recreation employee noticed the tall grass on Yahoo's campus and reported it to her bosses, says Ms. Bolgard Steward, the city's art superintendent. In October, the city told Yahoo its overgrown front lawn needed tending.

did the cities so called "Art Superintendent" order Yahoo to cut the grass for compliance with a city ordinance. or was she confused and wanted Yahoo to cut the grass because it appeared to obstruct the artificial reeds, and was ignorant that the grass was the bulk of the installation? either way it is incompetent that a so called "Art Superintendent" would be so ignorant of what is or isn't art.

It's not all that clear in the article, has she filed a brief with the court, I am also not understanding what Ms. Louden would be requesting of the court?

does she want the court to order Yahoo to restore it?

does she want Yahoo to remove it?

I think it is clear that Yahoo distorted the piece intentionally when it put the Kentucky bluegrass or whatever lawn they used, as for the weed whacker, and destruction of rods, that seems to be stupidity and incompetence, though not intentional, But the biggest question is under VARA will Yahoo have to restore it, or just not give her credit, or remove it.

It does seem like this is exactly what VARA is intended for, but will the court accept that the grass is part of the art, and that replacing it is a distortion? I hope so, at least I think this is in the 9th district, the one's the neo-cons love to call the most liberal, let's hope so.

Does anyone have an email address for Mr. Yang at yahoo so we could appeal to him to work with Ms. Louden to solve this in a civil manner.

10/02/2007 01:20:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I'm still angry at Jerry Yang for going and getting wildly rich when so many of the rest of us early Web content providers stayed poor.

And, for the record, I was kidding about the painting thing. Mostly.

10/02/2007 10:16:00 AM  
Anonymous ries said...

I was kidding about the painting thing, too, mostly.

I finally got my Wall Street Journal- I live in the sticks, and I get it by mail, and my mail comes about 3 in the afternoon, west coast time- which means last night, your time.

And the article, while well meaning, is full of vaguely inaccurate stuff. None of which changes the overall issue, but much of which makes it harder to understand what happened, and why.

For instance, this "Art Superintendant" stuff- Sunnyvale, like many small cities, has a volunteer, appointed arts commission that deals with things like this, and probably meets once a month. Then, they have a low level employee in the Parks department that acts as a liason between the volunteer commissioners and the head of Parks.
Obviously, the head of Parks cares little about a 5 year old art piece, and has daily much more pressing stuff that is his real job.
The "Art Superintendent" is really a Parks employee who is not very knowledgable, or concerned day to day, with art.

My guess is that a totally separate branch of the City told Yahoo to mow the lawn- and that the subject never made it to the Arts Commission til it became a controversy. Most likely a Public Works or Building code enforcement worker told Yahoo that the lawn needed mowing. Out on the West Coast, we have a much more nanny state civic government, especially in an affluent town like Sunnyvale.

The other thing that isnt clear in the article is that this is not a standard 1% for Art commission. The vast majority of cities that do public art, including New York, have limited 1%, or 1/2%, or sometimes 2% amounts set aside on civic buildings and public expenditures only. These are owned and maintained by city or state emloyees, and administered by city or state arts employees.

Then, a few cities, mostly on the west coast, have a different, parallel program where private developers are required to spend money on art as a part of their building permit. In LA, for example, any commercial project over $500,000 has such a requirement. This is the category this piece fell under. In such cases, the local Sunnyvale Arts Commission would want to approve the designs before construction, but they most likely didnt administer the project, and they dont own it or maintain it- the private company, in this case, Yahoo, does.
Obviously, a government that owns public art will think about it differently than a private company will. Governments are much more likely to know, and follow laws. Governments have long term maintenance spelled out in their contracts, and usually pay for it.

But once you put a commission in a private company, they tend to think they own it, and can do what they want with it. Unless they are forced by law to do otherwise, which is expensive, time consuming, and soul draining. VARA is notoriously vague and leaky- it sorta protects artists, in some situations, assuming they can pay and pay lawyers that are better and luckier than the opponents lawyers.

There have been many cases of corporations painting, moving, destroying, or selling art they own. In many cases, it happens so quickly the artist doesnt find out until its over.

My artwork are my children, sure, but once I push em out into the world, I hope they will make it on their own- I cant see spending my life babysitting em. I have had to repair some pieces, and maintain others, but its been strictly voluntary on my part, and, unfortunately, usually unpaid. Other pieces of mine are gone, removed to who knows where by the agencies who owned them, twice, without any notification to me.

My motto is stolen from the late Satchell Paige- "dont look back- they might be gaining on you".

10/02/2007 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Riprap said...

Ries said "But once you put a commission in a private company, they tend to think they own it."

Well, they do. If they bought a work of art, they own it, and can do whatever they want with it. Especially art that is so fragile and puts so many constraints on them.

The funniest part of this whole story is the idea that Yahoo "ruined" the artwork when it planted the "wrong" grass. I've dealt with corporate site planning, and the idea that the landscaping around a building should adhere to an art project is rather naive. There are many more concerns (wetlands preservation, erosion issues, maintanance) that come first.

10/04/2007 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


That's not exactly what's happening here.

Originally, the artist recommended three types of grass that her research had shown would grow to about the right height and then (because of their weight) bend over and not go any higher. This would have let the grass remain within both how she saw it working as well as low enough that the city wouldn't have needed to ask Yahoo to cut it.

Yahoo's landscape architect chose a different grass (one that grows taller and is stronger so it doesn't bend over to give the appearance of low lying wetlands grass) instead.

The artist was content to leave it at that (read the article). You're incorrect when you claim anyone has suggested that originally "Yahoo "ruined" the artwork when it planted the "wrong" grass."

Yahoo ruined it when they took the weed whackers to the wrong grass, and cut half the stems of the piece. They further ruined it when they decided to replace the long grass with short golf course grass that made any association with the wetlands ridiculous.

the idea that the landscaping around a building should adhere to an art project is rather naive

The time for Yahoo to decide they couldn't adhere to it was before they bought it, no?

Again, read the article.

10/04/2007 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous L.M. said...

There are similarities to a landmark Canadian court case: Michael Snow v. The Eaton Centre from 1982. Snow's installation, Flight Stop, consisting of a flock of fibreglass geese hanging in the atrium of the Eaton Center became part of their Christmas promotions with cute little red bows tied around the neck of each goose.

Snow got pissed off and took them to court in order to get the ribbons removed, (please note by this time, the mall owned by Cadillac Fairview had invested a lot of money in a Xmas advertising campaign that revolved around the red bows on the Geese, so they REALLY didn't want to remove them) He won his case based on Moral Rights, in that an art work must retain its integrity, preventing the owners of an art work from mutilating or altering it. This is part of copyright law here and in some European countries, but not in the U.S. (though I've read that VARA is supposed to contain those clauses)

10/05/2007 12:20:00 AM  

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