Mary Miss Fights Back Against Her Work’s Demolition

After the Des Moines Art Center revealed plans to demolish a key Land Art installation by Mary Miss, the environmental artist is exploring options to keep her work intact.

“Greenwood Pond: Double Site” by Mary Miss. Image courtesy of Mary Miss and the Cultural Landscape Foundation

No artist wants to hear their work has fallen into disrepair, but that is exactly the news Mary Miss received this past October. The pioneering land artist’s environmental installation Greenwood Pond: Double Site (1996), located at the Des Moines Art Center and considered the country’s first urban wetland project, would soon close to the public because its dilapidated components were severely weathered from the elements and at risk of collapsing. Six weeks later, director Kelly Baum estimated the repair costs would spiral to $2.7 million, and decided to dismantle the artwork entirely.

Despite an outcry, the institution intended to proceed with demolition plans. That was until Miss filed a lawsuit this past week seeking to prevent the museum from dismantling the work, which features boardwalk paths leading visitors up and down ramps around the edge of a quaint lagoon flanked with architectural follies. In her complaint, Miss alleges the museum is violating the Visual Arts Rights Act of 1990, which grants artists the right to prevent the destruction of works with recognized stature. A federal judge granted Miss a temporary restraining order, which the museum acknowledged with an announcement that it would pause demolition work and temporarily fence off the more dangerous sections.

“Greenwood Pond: Double Site” by Mary Miss. Image courtesy of Mary Miss and the Cultural Landscape Foundation

The legal kerfuffle is shedding light on the challenges of preserving public art in a time of dwindling institutional resources. Leigh Arnold, a curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, which recently held a landmark exhibition about women in Land Art that featured Miss, also pointed to a “set it and forget it” attitude when it comes to valuing site-specific works.

Still, the museum’s 1994 contract with Miss included a pledge to “reasonably protect and maintain the project against the ravages of time, vandalism, and the elements”—a promise it may ultimately break. “Landscape architecture is treated as a second- or third-class citizen,” Charles Birnbaum, director of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which is rallying support against the work’s destruction, told the New York Times. “Sometimes it comes from a lack of institutional memory—cultural amnesia for what they had.” Miss dedicated her career to spreading awareness of environmental issues through experiencing the ecology around us, but now her work seems to have taken on an even greater weight: shedding light on the meager solutions to preserving expensive Land Art.

“Greenwood Pond: Double Site” by Mary Miss. Photography by Judith Eastburn, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
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