Court Stops Iowa Art Center From Destroying Artist’s Land Installation

The Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) has been prohibited from proceeding with the demolition of Mary Miss’s “Greenwood Pond: Double Site” (1996) land art installation until further notice by Stephen Locher, a federal judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. The decision to grant Miss’s bid for a temporary restraining order came Monday, April 8 — the same day DMAC intended to begin dismantling the work.

After months of advocating for the protection of her deteriorating ecological installation project at Greenwood Park, Miss filed a legal complaint against DMAC on April 4 alleging that the Center failed to both “reasonably protect and maintain the project against the ravages of time, vandalism and the elements” in violation of its 1994 contract with her and to include her in the process of its decision to demolish the work.

“I am pleased and relieved by Judge Locher’s decision not only for what it has done for ‘Greenwood Pond: Double Site,’ but because it reaffirms the rights of all artists and the integrity of their legacies,” Miss said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. “Let’s use this opportunity to reach an outcome of which we can all be proud.”

DMAC Director Kelly Baum notified Miss last October that the installation, consisting of various wooden, metallic, and concrete landscape features that integrated viewers with the Greenwood Pond’s ecology, was in a state of disrepair and had to be closed to the public in order to undergo a “complete structural review.” Miss stressed the importance of the work to Baum at the time and told Hyperallergic that she felt blindsided by the Center’s decision in January to move forward with demolishing the artwork as a matter of “public safety.” The Center cited its commitment to the city of Des Moines after blaming the artwork’s dilapidation on the “ephemeral” materials Miss used for the project as well as the harsh Iowa climate.

Miss’s legal complaint not only alleges that the Center violated its contract with her but also that it breached the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 through the “destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work.” 

Judge Locher’s decision underscored that Miss had established a threat of irreparable harm if the demolition proceeds as the installation “can never be restored,” and agreed that the Center failed to obtain written consent from Miss to “intentionally damage, alter, relocate, modify or change the work” as outlined in the artist agreement, noting that the city has never “ordered, directed, or otherwise ‘required’ the Art Center to remove the artwork.”

A spokesperson for the Center told Hyperallergic that DMAC “respect[s] the court’s decision, and will be pausing plans to remove the artwork from Greenwood Park,” adding that portions of the walkway declared “dangerous and unsalvageable” will remain enclosed in protective fencing.

A secondary hearing is slated to take place within the next two weeks.

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