Cincinnati destroys its Double Star!

(See also ART IN AMERICA, December 2003, p. 128)

At an October 14 [2003] meeting, the City of Cincinnati decided to demolish Athena Tacha's sculpture Double Star Antares, an open-brick maze under Observatory Hill, commissioned through a public art competition for Hyde Park, a neighborhood of Cincinnati, in 1986.

It is the second of Tacha's environmental public sculptures being destroyed in three years. The first, Marianthe, commissioned by the University of South Florida in Fort Myers in 1985, was torn down by Edison Community College in 2000 (see Art In America, March 2000, p. 41). Like Double Star, it was a playful "space disorientation" maze. These were the only two such mazes executed by the artist.

A structural engineer licensed in over thirty States, John Bowes of Cleveland, OH, designed the steel structural support of both works (even to resist hurricane-force winds). His drawings, in the artist's possession, were approved by engineers and supervising committees in Cincinnati and Ft. Myers alike. Reputable local contractors built both Double Star and Marianthe, contributing a substantial sum in labor to augment the small budgets of about $30,000. In either case no evidence has been produced that the owners spent a penny on maintaining the works over the course of fifteen years. Yet, for Double Star, the Hyde Park community had donated to the City of Cincinnati a $5,000 maintenance fund, which remained untapped, piling up its interest while the sculpture languished uncared for.

This modest fund's income could have paid a bricklayer to inspect the walls annually, and repair any cracks in the mortar or replace spalled bricks. Inevitably, both sculptures became "unstable" and "unsafe", but that was caused by the neglect of the owning institutions, not by the artist's or engineer's "faulty design", as the owners assert after the fact. Brick structures indeed are vulnerable to weather, as owners of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, for instance, can testify. True, they are unlikely to last for millennia, but they can endure for many decades if properly maintained. Americans know how to care for cars, but unfortunately have scant tradition for or commitment to preservation of their artistic patrimony.

Contracts for Tacha's two condemned public sculptures pre-dated VARA, the federal legislation of 1990 that protects works of art. But even one of her sculptures commissioned in 1991 in Sarasota, FL, Memory Path, was saved only after considerable legal struggle and expense to the artist (saved temporarily, perhaps, because repairs from past damages still have not been made).

Fortunately, among the thirty-some public owners of Tacha's work, there are a number of highly responsible institutions. Her large step sculptures in Norfolk, VA, and Cleveland, OH, owned by GSA and Case Reserve University respectively, have been professionally restored recently by McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory. The University of Arizona in Tucson, Miami's Dade Art Council, the University of Minnesota's Weisman Museum and the Connecticut Commission for the Arts, to name more examples, have preserved Tacha's outdoor works in good condition. Unlike Cincinnati, these are exemplary communities that have shown confidence in the democratic selection process of artists and a serious commitment to the conservation of their public art.

P.S. On October 20, Mousa Gargari, a construction engineer and faculty member at the University of Cincinnati, went to look at Double Star Antares and concluded as follows:

"If the city had made repairs at the onset the work would not have reached this state so quickly. The replacement support bars [stainless steel "external" bars added, without the artist's approval, by the initial contractor in 1989, when vandal kids knocked down two of the walls] contributed to the self-destruction of the piece. They probably were hand-tightened where the bar attaches to a metal plate. In some cases they were over-tightened, preventing expansion and contraction in the bricks.

Most major problems occurred at or adjacent to those support bars [see Close-up below]. If rebuilt, as originally planned with the support system inside, hidden in the brick structure (without the pressure plates), there would not be the major problems that we are witnessing now. Though some walls, both high and low, are in fine shape in spite of everything." Close-up of damaged wall