News » Feature

Sculpture Shock

SLU president Lawrence Biondi says he leased his Trova from the city fair and square, for $10 a year. Others beg to differ.


Bob Orchard first heard the perplexing news during a private dinner party at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Emily Pulitzer had invited a few dozen close friends to her new modern-art museum on Washington Boulevard just before its grand opening in October 2001.

At the soirée, Orchard and his wife, Lois, sat next to their old friends, famed St. Louis sculptor Ernest Trova and his wife, Carla.

"Bob, do you know what's happened to AV/Bedu?" Orchard recalls Trova asking. Orchard, a retired businessman and well-known arts patron, listened as the 77-year-old artist described the whereabouts of AV/Bedu, the massive abstract sculpture that Trova donated to the city of St. Louis in 1979.

"I was shocked," remembers Orchard.

When Orchard left the party, he headed south on Vandeventer Avenue to investigate. As he approached the intersection of Vandeventer and Laclede avenues, he spotted lights in a grassy, treeless field surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Then he saw it.

AV/Bedu, the eighteen-foot-tall collection of stainless-steel circles, squares, triangles and rectangles, stood a few feet from the fence. The seven-and-a-half-ton sculpture -- which derived its name from an Italian expression meaning "good" -- loomed in front of five of Trova's smaller pieces. No signs were posted to identify the name of the artist or the titles of his work. The indignity of it all, thought Orchard.

The 83-year-old Orchard looked for clues to explain how the $250,000 AV/Bedu sculpture ended up here in midtown -- in between Saint Louis University student housing, a storage warehouse and Fat Freddie's Pub & Grub.

"Here it was on this lousy concrete slab on an empty lot," Orchard says. "I didn't realize it was Saint Louis University property until I looked at the name on the fence. It was obvious what had happened."

For the past two and a half years, Orchard has been battling with Saint Louis University, trying to retrieve the sculpture on behalf of the St. Louis Ambassadors Arts and Fountains Foundation. Orchard has been chairman of the civic fund-raising organization for three decades and originally asked Trova to create the piece for the entrance of the downtown Cervantes Convention Center, which is now part of America's Center.

Orchard maintains SLU president Lawrence Biondi and Adam Aronson, a prominent arts patron and former banker whom Orchard despises, suckered the city out of the valuable sculpture for a $10, ten-year lease. (Orchard and Aronson were once friends, but the two prominent arts patrons became sworn enemies after a business deal went sour in the mid-1990s.)

Aronson denies he had anything to do with the deal. Meanwhile, Saint Louis University says there is nothing improper about the lease, noting that AV/Bedu had been in storage since 1986, when the entrance to the convention center was remodeled.

After the redesign was complete, the sculpture was supposed to be placed in a new spot inside the America's Center complex. But plans for the building's layout changed, and a new location for AV/Bedu was never found. Instead it languished in a basement, all but forgotten.

Now Orchard insists that the sculpture, which was given to the city, should be moved to a city-owned property rather than remain on display on the SLU campus. When he asked Saint Louis University to return the sculpture to the city, he says Biondi demanded $100,000, the amount the SLU president said he needed to recoup the cost of moving the gigantic piece. And when Orchard asked Mayor Francis Slay to call Biondi and convince him to return the sculpture to the city, he says the mayor's office told Orchard to stop calling city hall.

"This is a theft of a piece of city property by Saint Louis University," Orchard contends. "It's a legal theft, but it's still a theft."

On the day after Thanksgiving in 1979, Christmas shoppers bustled from store to store in downtown St. Louis, looking for sales. Singers and musicians crooned holiday carols. Jugglers, actors and magicians entertained children and passed out invitations to a noon ceremony at the Cervantes Convention Center.

All the fanfare was for the much-anticipated unveiling of a new sculpture by Ernest Trova, the local artist who made St. Louis proud with his mercurial rise to international fame in the 1960s. His "Falling Man" series of sculptures -- faceless, genderless stainless-steel figures -- was heralded by New York art critics as the embodiment of man's loss of identity in the machine-powered world.

After "Falling Man," Trova's work evolved to larger multidimensional pieces. In 1975, at the urging of Adam Aronson, Trova donated 40 outdoor sculptures to the county-owned Laumeier Sculpture Park, of which Aronson is the founder. Though city fathers in Sunset Hills labeled Trova's art "junk," today the 98-acre park is one of America's most unique artistic landscapes and the home to more Trovas than any other venue in the world.

In the late 1970s the St. Louis Ambassadors Arts and Fountains Foundation asked Trova to design a sculpture to dress up the Cervantes Convention Center's front door. "The entrance had no sweetness, no nothing," Orchard remembers.

AV/Bedu filled the space beautifully. The tower of shapes glistened on a granite pedestal designed by architect Gyo Obata and featured a plaque dedicated to Arthur Baer, the former chairman and CEO of the Stix, Baer & Fuller department store. The Baer family donated money for materials, Trova donated his time, and the city kicked in $40,000 from the hotel-tax fund.

"My grandfather passed away in the 1970s," explains Arthur Baer's grandson, Terry Baer. "The sculpture was in his honor."

But when the convention center was remodeled in 1986, the sculpture was taken apart and stored in the building's basement. The move was supposed to be temporary, but a new home was never found. AV/Bedu collected dust until late 2000. That's when it suddenly appeared on the southwestern edge of the Saint Louis University campus.

Trova was furious when he discovered AV/Bedu's new location in the fall of 2001. The Ladue artist assumed the sculpture was still in the convention center's basement -- until a friend driving past the site recognized the piece and broke the news to Trova, says Robert Lococo, an Olivette art publisher who represents Trova's work.

"They said to him, 'Ernie, did you know that Bedu is the centerpiece of the O.K. Corral?'" Lococo recalls. "It does look like the O.K. Corral because of the fence around it. And the other pieces are sort of put on the site without a lot of thought."

Trova penned a note to Orchard shortly after he saw him at the Pulitzer museum, complaining that AV/Bedu had been "hijacked by Philistines." To Mayor Slay, Trova wrote: "I am outraged that my work has been sent to a vacant lot that could easily be an auto junkyard."

Terry Baer says his family was insulted when they weren't consulted about the sculpture's move. "My grandfather wouldn't have had anything against Saint Louis University, but it was given to the city," he says. "We should have been involved, and we weren't. That's my bewilderment."

In early 2002 Orchard went to city hall and discovered that Mayor Clarence Harmon's administration had leased AV/Bedu to the university. "The contract is a sham," Orchard fumes.

The October 2000 artwork lease was signed by Mike Jones, deputy mayor from 1997 to 2001. "It was collecting dust in the basement of the convention center, and this was a way to get it displayed," Jones explains. "We didn't move it from the center of a public square to the private confines of Saint Louis University where no one could see it."

According to a statement issued to the Riverfront Times by Saint Louis University, city officials offered AV/Bedu to the school. The statement came after numerous phone calls from the paper to Biondi and Kathleen Brady, SLU vice president for facilities management, went unreturned.

"The AV/Bedu sculpture came to Saint Louis University after the City of St. Louis asked SLU to display it," the statement says. "It is important to remember that this sculpture was donated to the city, and that it was the city's decision to offer it to SLU for display."

That's not the way Alicia Smith remembers it.

Smith, who was executive assistant to Mayor Harmon, says Biondi approached her about AV/Bedu during a meeting about downtown development in late 1999 or early 2000. "He said he heard it was just in storage some place, and that he had a site on campus and would be interested if the city didn't have a place to display it," Smith recalls.

What Biondi didn't mention was that back in 1994, he and Adam Aronson, who served on SLU's Board of Regents art committee, tried unsuccessfully to move AV/Bedu from the convention center to the SLU campus. At the time, Trova gave his OK but made it clear that he wanted a say in how and where it was installed. Trova also insisted that the Baer family give its blessing to the move and that architect Gyo Obata design a new granite base.

After several months of inquiries, Biondi dropped his campaign because of opposition from city-hall bureaucrats who wanted the sculpture to remain on city property. In August 1994, Biondi wrote to Trova: "We would, of course, still enjoy the opportunity to mount the piece with your specifications and supervision, but it doesn't seem likely that it will happen soon, given the apparent political ramifications."

Both Smith and Jones said they were unaware of Trova's stipulations. "Had we been aware of any conditions, we most assuredly would have contacted [Trova]," Jones says.

Bruce Sommer, director of America's Center, was one of nine people, including Biondi, who received the 1994 letter from Trova. Although he and Smith discussed moving the sculpture to SLU, he did not tell the mayor's assistant about the conditions listed in Trova's letter.

"My only responsibility was to make sure it was properly stored," Sommer says.

Initially Biondi wanted to display the sculpture inside the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, but the city's legal department objected. Even though city attorneys were unable to find any documentation on the sculpture, Smith says, "We knew there was some sort of agreement out there" that required the sculpture to be mounted in a public place -- which the art museum is not.

Orchard maintains that Aronson, the former president of Mark Twain Bancshares, had a hand in moving AV/Bedu to the campus. Aronson was involved in moving five smaller Trova sculptures from Laumeier Sculpture Park to SLU. But Smith says Aronson played no role in the city leasing AV/Bedu to the university and Aronson, in turn, says Biondi should not be at the middle of the controversy either.

"Father Biondi has done more to make the city look good than anyone else," Aronson says. "What a pity to pick on him."

Biondi's leadership in the midtown corridor made the university a good candidate for the sculpture, Smith explains, especially because no one in city government had expressed an interest in it in years. "Saint Louis University has done a lot for the city," Smith says. "We didn't feel, after we'd done a series of checks and balances, that it was an outrageous request."

She adds, "Father Biondi was extremely persistent about this."

Although the city originally planned to lease the piece for approximately $1,000, Smith says the amount was reduced to $10 because Saint Louis University spent several thousand dollars restoring the finish, manufacturing new bolts to replace rusted ones and moving and installing the piece.

"It was a pimple on an elephant's butt, notoriety notwithstanding," Mike Jones says of leasing the sculpture. "If I would have known it was going to cause this much trouble, I would have left it in the basement, no disrespect to Mr. Trova."

In January 2002 Bob Orchard asked Frank Ferrara, then president of the St. Louis Ambassadors, to visit Biondi. "I said, 'Tell him this is dishonest,'" Orchard remembers telling Ferrara. "It could damage Saint Louis University's reputation for morality and integrity."

Ferrara is a Saint Louis University alumnus and the brother of the late John Ferrara, who co-founded the Pasta House Co. with J. Kim Tucci. (Orchard also called Tucci, who is the chairman of the Convention and Visitors Commission, the quasi-government agency that oversees the America's Center convention complex where AV/Bedu had been stored. Tucci, who also sits on SLU's board of directors, never returned the call, Orchard says.)

During Frank Ferrara's meeting with Biondi, he told the university president that moving AV/Bedu had upset Orchard, Trova and the Baer family. Biondi offered that he could break the lease with the city but needed to be reimbursed for the cost of moving the sculpture and erecting it on the SLU campus.

Orchard was outraged at Biondi's $100,000 price tag. Since 1971, when Mayor Alfonso Cervantes named him chairman of the St. Louis Ambassadors Arts and Fountains Foundation, Orchard has raised thousands of dollars to restore sculptures in city parks, including Aloe Plaza across from Union Station. The foundation also commissioned the controversial Richard Serra sculpture, Twain, on downtown's Gateway Mall and is restoring all the mayors' portraits that hang in city hall.

But raising money to "pay off a ransom" was out of the question, Orchard says.

Ferrara visited Biondi again. This time the reverend said he would return AV/Bedu in exchange for $27,000. "It was very costly for the University to rent a crane and a truck to move the sculpture to SLU," according to the school's official statement. "SLU would not have made that investment if the University had known that the city would want to cancel the lease after a short period of time."

On August 7, 2003, Orchard went to see Mayor Slay and remembers telling him, "Francis, you ought to call Biondi directly and tell him this was a mistake on the part of the city."

The mayor's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, sat in on the meeting. He told Orchard that the city's legal department felt the contract with SLU was valid. "We couldn't just take it back," Rainford explains. "We did say, 'We want it back,' and Father Biondi indicated if he got his costs covered, we could do that."

During the meeting with Orchard, Rainford volunteered that the city could raise half of the $27,000 that Biondi had demanded if Orchard could raise the other half. Orchard replied, "I can't get money to rectify a theft!" He suggested that the city should pay for half of the costs, with Saint Louis University paying the other half.

Not long after the meeting, Orchard claims, he received word from a south-city funeral home director who had been appointed by the mayor's office to communicate with the Ambassadors. Orchard says the liaison sent this message: "Rainford says don't call city hall anymore."

"What chutzpah!" Orchard exclaims. "Every mayor before Slay used the Arts and Fountains Foundation to do things for the city, and I was told, 'Don't call city hall!'"

Rainford denies the accusation. "I don't remember that ever happening," he says. "What I remember from our conversation was that [Orchard] was going to raise the money, and we're waiting for him to do it. It's not that large an amount of money. I'm just curious why he hasn't done it."

After the meeting at city hall, Orchard resigned himself to raising the $27,000 to pay SLU. Not everyone can come up with that kind of money. But Orchard, the former owner of an international plastics and printing company, has been scaring up money for the arts for more than 30 years. And he's well connected with many wealthy people.

"I go to them and say, 'I need some help; it's for the city. Can you give me $10,000?'" Orchard explains. "Sometimes I have to go to a person and say, 'Come on over to the corner of Broadway and Olive and take your pants down and I'll kiss your ass.'"

He says he now needs to find another $30,000 to build a pedestal, to make a new plaque honoring Arthur Baer and to move the sculpture -- hopefully to the city park across the street from the Soldiers Memorial downtown. In addition, Orchard contends that SLU scratched the sculpture's surface when it was moved and has failed to keep AV/Bedu clean.

"It's going to end up costing the foundation more than $50,000 to rectify what I consider to be a serious mistake on the part of the city," Orchard says.

Last September Frank Ferrara went back to Biondi's office, this time bearing a contract that would cancel the lease between SLU and the city in exchange for $27,000.

"Biondi said he wanted another $3,000 to take up the concrete slab," Orchard recounts. "And we've been waiting [to get the contract back] ever since."

In its prepared statement, Saint Louis University did not mention the settlement offer presented to Biondi by the Arts and Fountains Foundation. "To this point, the City of St. Louis has contacted the University about releasing them from the lease, but it remains unclear whether the city would be willing to reimburse the University for its costs," the statement says.

As for Trova, he says he's engrossed in a new project and can't be bothered with the controversy. Jazz music blares in the background when he picks up the phone on a recent afternoon.

"Other people are dealing with that. It's not on my agenda," Trova grumbles. "I don't like to be bothered with other people's political problems or agendas."

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.