If a sculpture falls at Laumeier Sculpture Park, does it make the news? Italian artist Giuliano Mauri's "La Casa della Memoria (House Remembered)," a nearly 30-foot-tall structure made of locally gathered sticks and twigs and installed in 1997, is being removed on a beautiful April morning because of safety concerns, according to Bill Briggs, head of Laumeier's grounds and maintenance. As the bulldozer shovels the sculpture's remains, the dry wood crackling in the crisp spring air, and dumps it into a waiting truck, the affable Briggs explains that part of his job is to inspect and report on the status of the Laumeier collection on a weekly basis. He began reporting his concerns about the Mauri in early '99. "Kids were on it all the time," he says, and the temporary site-specific work "started listing toward the south." He remembers that it was last October when he officially recommended the work's removal but says he doesn't know when the decision was actually made.
Briggs is squarely built, strong, offers a firm handshake and responds to questions with no hint of subterfuge. Trustworthy, capable, responsible -- if you wanted somebody to keep an eye on millions of dollars' worth of outdoor sculpture, he'd be your man.
But this is Laumeier, and the last time a sculpture was to be removed, or "deaccessioned," it was Beverly Pepper's "Cromlech Glen." That plan led to a public-relations fiasco when it became known that the artist was not in agreement with the proposed destruction of her earthwork, the grassy mound that is one of the most popular pieces in the park and of considerable importance given its place in Pepper's venerable career and in the history of environmental sculpture. "If they even think of doing something without my approval," Pepper told The Riverfront Times, "I'll give you some screaming headlines to write."
"Cromlech Glen" remains as it was left last summer, its stone steps removed and stacked adjacent to its steep grass walls. A plastic fence to keep visitors off is continually torn down.
"La Casa della Memoria" is most definitely gone, however, and the efficacy of its removal raises suspicions, given the allegations of former Laumeier preparator Dennis Fortna, who worked with Mauri on the sculpture's installation. Fortna says that Laumeier director Beej Nierengarten-Smith told him, even as the piece was being built, that the work was coming down in three years but Mauri shouldn't be informed.
And here's the bulldozer, right on schedule.
"It was removed," asserts Clara Coleman, Laumeier registrar and head of collections management. "We didn't use a bulldozer."
Semantics have long been an issue at Laumeier. For example, in Laumeier's own report on its art program for 1998, under the heading "Sculpture and Arts Program: Conservation," is Meg Webster's environmental landscape installation "Pass." The "conservation" of that work was described in this fashion: "removed sculpture, including filling in ponds, tore out concrete and stone, graded the area."
When "conservation" equals "removal," who knows what a bulldozer might be?
But other than that initial confusion, Coleman is forthcoming about the reason for the deaccessioning of the Mauri. "It was removed because it was falling apart. It had been deteriorating for quite some time, and the sculpture was designed as a temporary site-specific work, expected to last about two years. We kept it about three because people really liked it. We kept it as long as we could. But we had several incidents with the piece, and it had become a safety hazard for visitors, and that's why we had to take it down."
Asked to be more specific about those "incidents," Coleman excuses herself to check the files, then calls back. First she reads from the contract with the artist: "The work will be on exhibition at Laumeier Sculpture Park as long as the condition of the sculpture continues to be suitable." Then she reads from Briggs' reports to illuminate how unsuitable the sculpture had become. April 17, 1999: Briggs and crew find the remains of a fire inside the sculpture, as well as several broken and loose poles. They report that the structure is "continuing to lean toward the southwest." July 8, 1999: Supporting poles have come loose, the upper section of the work has begun to unravel and the leaning is more severe. Aug. 20, 1999: The wood is extremely brittle, several pieces have been broken by climbers, trash and debris have been shoved between the pieces of wood, and wasps are nesting there. Finally, on Oct. 8, 1999, Briggs recommends removal. The sculpture is leaning more severely, wood is pulling loose and the structure proves unstable even when the support posts are grabbed.
Coleman says Mauri was contacted about a month ago. "He was informed initially that might happen, and my correspondence was to let him know that this decision had to be made to give him an opportunity if he wanted to make any comments about the piece." Coleman again refers to the contract and the ephemeral nature of the piece. "It was no surprise to the artist. He was probably surprised that it lasted as long as it did."
Mauri lives in Italy, speaks very little English and has no gallery representative in the United States. Coleman says Mauri "didn't have a response" to the removal of his sculpture. "We sent him information. We also contacted him because we're working on a catalog on art and nature, and 'La Casa della Memoria' is featured in the catalog. We commissioned a critical essay on the work, and we've been doing photodocumentation of the piece throughout the years. He was more interested in the catalog and the publication."
Critics of Laumeier argue that Nierengarten-Smith's curatorial inclination leans toward collecting and presenting new work, with a chronic neglect of the old. The Mauri probably had to go, but it's no small coincidence that it stood directly in the footpath to Laumeier's new children's sculpture garden. Even as those new works are to be installed (where Webster's "Pass" was located), the Pepper remains as it was last summer and Mary Miss' "Pool Complex: Orchard Valley" -- an elegant wood structure constructed around the ruins of an old swimming pool -- is partly fenced off where wood railing has been removed.
"We're trying to get funds," Coleman says of the Miss installation. "Hopefully that piece will be saved. They've applied for several grants. It's a major restoration. We always go in and shore up parts whenever there's been damage, but we don't have the best security at the park, and people at night continue to find that a haven. Park rangers are continually running people off, and sometimes as soon as things are repaired they're damaged again, because they're stopgap repairs. There's a lot of rebuilding that has to be done. It's a good project for grant funding."
The artist hasn't been informed about any of this, however, says Coleman, and, indeed, Miss is surprised to hear anything about a "major restoration" when she's contacted by the RFT in her New York studio. Miss does say that her relationship with Laumeier has been good in the past. "I would have to say, as opposed to other projects I've done, this one has fared fairly well. But usually people let you know when there's a problem, and I've never heard anything from them. If they've repaired things or if things have had to be replaced, it's all been done on their own."
As for "Cromlech Glen," says Coleman, "It's the same sort of project as the Mauri. It's been here longer, and again it's a piece that people like, and no one wants to see its natural demise." Again the issue is funding, although Coleman is unaware that local collector and gallery owner Ron Greenberg had publicly volunteered to help fund the sculpture's restoration when it was endangered last summer. Coleman makes a note of it, though.
She's only been on the job since September, after all, yet another new face among Laumeier's ever-changing staff. In that time, however, she has made some observations with regard to the park and the maintenance of its major asset, the art: "We have this continual problem. One of the things as registrar that I keep recommending is that we take some security precautions. I've seen lots of reports recommending security, but we don't have cameras or anything. The public perceives an outdoor sculpture park as a playground. They see a lot of these pieces as some type of playground equipment." She notes that a local visitors' guide shows a picture of Laumeier's signature work, the bright red cones of Alexander Lieberman's "The Way," with people climbing it. Another such photo has appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Coleman adds she once received a letter from a woman who complained about bringing her grandchildren to the park and finding all those "Do Not Climb" signs.
The Mauri might "have lasted a little bit longer if it hadn't been for all the vandalism," says Coleman. "It wasn't just an aesthetic decision." She wants to research security practices at other outdoor parks but assumes that most have their own monitoring staffs. Laumeier has St. Louis County park rangers monitor the grounds, but there is no 24-hour watch. "It seems pretty basic," says Coleman, "but it's not something that has been budgeted."
Meanwhile, new work seems to sprout around Laumeier like spring flowers, including the new children's sculpture garden. The new is budgeted. It's out with the old.