Thursday, August 9, 2012

Art vs Nature: Should NJDEP junk sculpture garden?

Maybe it's just a sign of how little hard news is generated in August, but a lot of attention is being paid to plans by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to rip out an outdoor sculpture that has been a fixture at its Trenton headquarters since the mid 1980s.

Credit: Athena Tacha, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Charles A. Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation writes that Green Acres, the work of respected Greek-American artist Athena Tacha,

features crescent shaped planters with stepped seating that ring its edges. It also contains 46 slabs of green granite onto which photographs of state landscapes, plants and animals (many of them endangered species) have been sandblasted. The work, considered one of Tacha's most important, has been praised by museum directors and art historians, is included in Meredith Bzdak's Public Sculpture in New Jersey and is documented in the Contemporary Landscape Design Collection of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.  a site-specific."

Annie Knox reports in NJ Spotlight that  
"...the state sponsored the sculpture’s $417,000 construction after choosing it as the winner in a State Council on the Arts competition to honor the Green Acres land preservation program. That contest was one of 50 public arts competitions Tacha has won across the country. About 40 of those designs turned up in parks and other public spaces nationwide, she said, including Franklin Town Park in Philadelphia." 
Praised by the arts community it may be, but the work is showing its age. Some of its slate slabs have settled unevenly, causing what the DEP claims is a risk to people walking across it (or fleeing across it should the building catch fire or a denied permit petitioner calls in a bomb threat).

The Department says it will 
be replaced by something less impervious, apparently something "greener" than Green Acres.

"We're looking to take out the brick and install a rain garden... It's the type of model that we've been preaching to urban communities across the state," says NJDEP spokesman, Larry Ragonese. 

    Credit: Athena Tacha, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The decision has triggered a rare clash between two liberal communities--artists and environmentalists. Think of it as intellectual mud wrestling for lefties.  

The Cultural Landscape Foundation 
wants it saved and is urging like-minded folk to sign a petition 

A Trenton Times editorial agrees, arguing "a work considered worthy to be on the National Register of Historic Places, ought to stay."

But our friend, Wayne DeFeo, an environmental consultant, is waving goodbye to it in his blog, GreenLight:
"The problem is that the space is typical of the arrogance of the landscape architect community from that era. Put in hardscape at the expense of the living plant community."
What do we think?

We've been to the DEP building dozens of times and never paid much attention to the landscape. With our philistine credentials thus well established, we won't enter the art vs nature debate. But as a longtime observer New Jersey's political culture, we wonder:
  1. Who gets the contract to replace the work?
  2. Will DEP invoke its new waiver rule to expedite the demo permit?
  3. How long will it take the Sierra Club to link the decision to the Koch Brothers?
What do you think?  Let us know in the comment box below. If one is not visible, activate it by clicking on the tiny 'comments' link.

Related news stories:

Without review, NJ DEP plans to dump a commissioned work of art  DEP's plan to replace Trenton sculptural plaza with 'rain garden' met with furor from arts groups

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