Call it a win for the underdog.
New Jersey has nixed a plan to demolish a public work of art by sculptor Athena Tacha at the Department of Environmental Protection.
“I was astounded” when the call came in Friday with news that the sculpture would remain at the DEP, Tacha said from her home in Washington, D.C. “I was of course very grateful and I still can’t believe it.”
In spring, the state etched out a plan to remove the large-scale sculpture because of its growing safety hazards: crumbling bricks and uneven floor pavers. It planned to replace the sculpture with a more eco-friendly rain garden — with money allocated by the federal government for storm water projects.
But that plan drew strong criticism from Tacha and national arts preservation groups in July, boosting the sculpture’s profile and sliding it under the national press spotlight. For that attention, Tacha credits the work of the ArtPride, Preservation New Jersey and CLF foundations, and the help of friends such as the waterfront planning expert Ann Breen.
A July blog post in the Huffington Post arguing for New Jersey to keep Tacha’s sculpture earned 100,000 re-tweets, said Charles Birnbaum, author of the post and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (CLF) in Washington, D.C.
The effort to save the Green Acres sculpture from demolition drew together a wide range of people for a common cause, Birnbaum said. “What made people get so involved,” he said, “is that it crosses all these boundaries between art design and the environment.” Public works of art often “fall prey to the wrecking ball,” he said, calling the preservation of the Green Acres sculpture “a happy occasion.”
The state’s about-face decision was reached jointly by the DEP, the treasury, and the governor’s office, said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP.
“We’re aware of what some people have written and said about it,” Ragonese said of the former plan. The DEP took into consideration the criticism voiced by Tacha and the arts preservation groups like the CLF, he said.
The state’s first move will be to fix the unsafe areas of the sculpture, Ragonese said, but it has not yet drafted further plans for the work.
“We wanted something that looked good and was modern” to replace the current sculpture, Ragonese said. “But the sculpture is here right now and will remain.”
The sculpture is “site-specific,” meaning that Tacha designed it to fit in and respond with its surroundings at the DEP. Removing it, critics said, would destroy the sculpture and counteract its purpose.
The state commissioned the $417,000 construction of Tacha’s sculpture, completed in 1987. Tacha won a State Council on the Arts competition in 1985 for her design that honors New Jersey’s Green Acres land preservation program. The work is made of slate slabs surrounded by curving, tiered brick structures containing trees and shrubs. It is one of about 40 of Tacha’s public, large-scale sculptures in the United States.
Ann Marie Miller, the executive director of ArtPride New Jersey, called the state’s decision not to demolish the sculpture a “ good step in the right direction.” The work, she said, is an important piece of the state’s historical art.
When the phone rang with the news of the state’s turnaround on Friday, Tacha was in her studio working on another landscape sculpture. “Taking care of my past,” she said, “is not my only obligation. I still continue working very actively and very hard.”
But “it is wonderful,” she said of the preservation of the Green Acres sculpture, “because it is a real victory.”