John Passmore is the Archives Manager at WNYC.
Original Air Date February 21st, 1985 –
Richard Serra was not a happy man in 1985. His public sculpture, Tilted Arc, was the focus of an on-going controversy in New York City and in this interview with Jenny Dixon on WNYC's Artists in the City, Serra defends himself against the critics who would eventually call for the sculpture's removal. Serra v. the Office of Operations, GSA and subsequent appeals and lawsuits became some of the more notorious cases in the history of art law in the United States - addressing the complex issues of artist's moral rights, state censorship, and the limits of free speech in a public art context.
In 1972, the General Services Administration established its Art in Architecture program, which mandated that one half of one percent of all new federal building projects budgets be allocated to the incorporation of publicly-sponsored art. In 1979, the GSA asked Richard Serra to create and install a public sculpture on a plaza adjacent to a federal office complex in lower Manhattan - a service for which Serra would be paid $175,000. The GSA had a history of commissioning well-respected sculptors: Both Claes Oldenberg's Batcolumn in 1977 and Alexander Calder's Flamingo in 1974 were paid for by the GSA and installed in large outdoor public spaces in Chicago. After about a year of interviews, drafts, and reviews by both art-world appointed civilians and government officials, Serra installed Tilted Arc, a 120 foot long by 12 foot high curved steel structure, in the middle of Federal Plaza.
It didn't take long for the sculpture to become an object of derision in the eyes of area office workers. Two months after its installation, a petition requesting the removal of the sculpture was signed by 1,300 federal employees working in and around the plaza. Outspoken critics included the architect of the Javits Building, Alfred Easton Poor, and William Diamond, the regional administrator of the GSA. Over the next few years, Diamond gathered an additional 4,000 petition signatures, and in 1984, a New York congressman and a federal judge also asked for its removal.
The Hearing and Subsequent Lawsuits
In 1985, Diamond convened a public hearing to discuss the removal of the artwork from the plaza. In Serra's mind, the deck was stacked. Diamond had already decided to remove the sculpture and had populated the public hearings panel with GSA appointees and lawmakers sympathetic to Diamond's views. The main public criticism was that the sculpture had a generally disruptive nature; its scale and location bifurcated the plaza, obstructing views and making it difficult for pedestrians and office workers to commute between buildings. Its overwhelming size and mass was aesthetically unpleasing to many and some felt that Serra had destroyed the work of another artist (the plaza designers) for his own artistic conceit.
Well known artists like Oldenberg, William Rubin, Frank Stella, and Serra himself spoke at the hearing defending the integrity of Tilted Arc. Serra argued that the work was built as a response to the plaza and as such was so inextricably linked to its environs that to alter it or move it from its original intended location, would be "to destroy it." In other words, the sculpture's meaning and artistic values were derived from its site-specificity.
In this WNYC interview, Serra states that the GSA knew what they were getting into: the project had been subject to numerous reviews and approvals and it was too late in the game to allow the general public to alter or change the GSA's commission. Serra was also skeptical that everyone in the community was against the sculpture. He had lived within four blocks of the plaza for almost 20 years, and he saw the site as not just an areas for federal workers, but a place where international tourists and local residents interacted, gathered, and participated.
Conclusion and Ramifications
In the end, both Serra's and his advocate's pleas fell on deaf ears. The judge for the city ruled that since the GSA owned the work, they could essentially do whatever they wanted with it. There was nothing in the contract that Serra had signed that guaranteed the sculpture's permanence in the plaza, and the public interest in its removal trumped any aesthetic or free speech considerations.
Serra responded with an appeal and a 30 million dollar lawsuit, claiming that by removing the work, the GSA had breached their contract, broke established trademark and copyright laws, and violated his First and Fifth Amendment rights. But these attempts to rescue the work failed and in 1989 Tilted Arc was removed.
To this day Serra insists that the work can never be installed anywhere other than the Federal Plaza. And although the GSA has made attempts to reinstall the sculpture at an alternate location, organizations have been reluctant to go against the wishes of the artist. As a result, Tilted Arc has remained in storage for the last 24 years.