Saturday, April 20, 2024

What Responsibility Does a City Have to Its Public Art?

Tempest, as originally installed by artist, Brian Tolle, at the Bass Museum of Art, 2010.

Let’s start off with the following: if a city commissions a public art project from an artist, at the cost, excuse me, at the tax-payer cost of more than $400,000, then I believe we can safely say that the responsibility the city owes to its property is pretty obvious. More so, the responsibility it has to its tax-base is even greater. But, perhaps both are inseparable.

It’s just come to our attention that the City of Miami Beach has, without the artist’s consent, taken it upon themselves to remove a public sculpture, Tempest, installed in Collins Park (at the Bass Museum of Art) in 2010 by artist Brian Tolle. But why?

According to Tolle (via The Art Newspaper), the City of Miami Beach failed to maintain the art work, allowing it to be vandalized and used as a “toilet.” Why the City would allow this to happen to a work of art is beyond comprehension, but even more alarming is the fact that this is a $400,000+ work of art. As Tolle’s attorney, Donn Zaretsky notes, “the city is responsible for maintaining the [art] work.” We agree.

Take a look at the image of Tolle’s sculpture. Note the materials and installation. It doesn’t appear to us that this sculptural art work could be safely removed without suffering any damage. This is key because if it was (and is) damaged, can you say, moral rights violation? Remember that in the U.S., under the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act, a visual artist has — among other rights — the right to prevent the use of one’s name on any work that has been distorted, mutilated, or modified in a way that would be prejudicial to the artist’s honor or reputation, and s/he also has the right to prevent any distortion, mutilation, or modification that would prejudice the artist’s honor or reputation.

Did the City not seek out recommendations for the care and maintenance of Tolle’s art work? Did City officials really think that removing (and possibly damaging or destroying) Tolle’s art work without Tolle’s consent would be cheaper than cleaning and maintaining the art work? In essence what we’re asking is, did the City just think that it could do as it pleased with a legally protected work of art, and with complete disregard to the artist’s wishes?

If this sounds familiar, our readers may remember the Mass MoCA v. Christoph Büchel lawsuit fiasco, brought to you, the taxpayer, by gross institutional incompetence and arrogance. And let’s not forget how that institutional tragedy also damaged the museum’s reputation in the eyes of many artists, curators, critics, and donors. One can only hope the same is not levied on the Bass Museum of Art or the City of Miami Beach.

It appears that post-removal, Tempest is somewhere in the vicinity of Miami Beach, but no confirmation on this as of yet. We will have more as this story develops.


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