"De-accessioned." That's the demure word (from dictionary.com: "to sell [a work of art] from a museum's or gallery's collections") that the website of the city Arts Commission uses to describe the final fate of "Ground Zero" by William Maxwell, a batch of bright plastic strips that used to scamper up the curved blank wall of the old City Hall — the commission's first major public art project. Too bad the website doesn't just come clean: It was taken down in a mist of derision, exhaustion and defeat. And its dismal fate not only delivered a blow to public-sculpture efforts to follow, it also offers a few key lessons in what can go wrong.
A detailed recollection of "Ground Zero" was the early highlight of a Feb. 20 talk about public art in the Contemporary Arts Center's Main Street gallery. Moderated by Zappos historian Brian "Paco" Alvarez, it featured Patrick Gaffey, a cultural supervisor for Clark County; Denise Duarte, a public art specialist also with the county; and Lisa Stamanis, from the City of Las Vegas' Department of Cultural Affairs. Much of the meeting meandered through a discussion about how artists can best interface with the municipal arts bureaucracies. But it opened with Gaffey offering a wry but quietly forceful account of the "Ground Zero" episode.
Back in the early '90s, he said, the initial roster of arts commissioners spent the first three years of their four-year term "educating ourselves about public art." With their fourth year looming, some of the commissioners pushed for the body to get moving on a sizable project. Thus the idea for a piece to grace City Hall. Proposals were solicited, entries received, finalists winnowed and maquettes of their projects displayed for public vote. "Maxwell's won overwhelmingly," Gaffey told the small crowd at CAC. It was a strongly anti-nuclear piece — the Cold War hadn't been over for long — that employed references to the Native American ghost dance, desert creatures and more. It was to be etched into the building's travertine marble skin, and at certain times of the day the sun would send shadows dancing across its face. At its base, lights and a water feature. "It was wonderfully subtle; that was one of the things people loved about it," Gaffey said. And its lefty politics? "Political as it was, no one had any problem with it whatsoever."
But someone did. City maintenance. They refused to let Maxwell etch his design into the "irreplaceable" marble, saying he would break it; indeed, so irreplaceable was the stuff that they didn't even have leftover samples Maxwell could test his process on to show it was safe. "Maintenance dug in its heels," Gaffey said. (Too bad no one representing city maintenance workers from 20 years ago was on hand to offer rebuttal.)
Eventually a compromise was reached: Maxwell would replicate the design in translucent, neon-colored plastic. In place of the subtlety and sunlight-play of the original, the new version offered a cheap-looking garishness — presumably appropriate for Vegas in some conceptual way, but still "pretty much the opposite of what he originally came up with," Gaffey said.
This was 1993. After the successful opening, Gaffey said, the maintenance people shut down the water feature at the sculpture's foot, saying its automated elements — which required electrical wires in the water — could pose a hazard for the homeless people who'd try to bathe there in the summer.
Not surprisingly, the civic view of the piece began to sour. Nationally, too, it was a period in which the arts were under pressure. The 1989 controversies over Robert Mapplethorpe's work and Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" had intensified arguments about whether public dollars should fund art; that was exacerbated by the "NEA Four" controversy of 1990, in which the National Endowment for the Arts vetoed grants it had given to four performance artists whose work was considered inflammatory. Such was the cultural climate that a year later, a resurgent Newt Gingrich would call for the elimination of the NEA altogether.
"Ground Zero" didn't last a decade; by 2001 it had been taken down in a mist of derision, exhaustion and defeat.
"It was a pretty unmitigated disaster," Gaffey recalled at CAC. "It took years for public art art in the city to recover."
Some might argue that it hasn't fully recovered. With a few exceptions — Stephen Hendee's "Monument to the Simulacrum," for example, named Best Public Sculpture in Desert Companion's February issue — Vegas isn't overburdened with grabby public sculpture that has the scale, conceptual complexity and possibly confrontational content of Maxwell's. But we do have a pair of giant paintbrushes. (Side note: There have been some great murals, ZAP programs, pedestrian bridge decorations and yarn-bombings that have enlivened parts of the city.) While political bodies are always over-cautious about public sculpture — no elected official wants to explain a hunk of avant garde plop art to a huffy taxpayer — one has to wonder if "Ground Zero" doesn't lurk in the civic memory, a cautionary tale no one wants to repeat.