Mary Miss files lawsuit against Des Moines Art Center [Updated]

Mary Miss, Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Des Moines, IA. Photo © Judith Eastburn, 2014

Pioneering land artist Mary Miss yesterday filed a lawsuit against the Des Moines Art Center which has made plans to demolish Miss’s outdoor installation Greenwood Pond: Double Site (1996). The artwork was commissioned by the DMAC and is considered the first urban wetland project in the United States. Through the suit, Miss calls for the institution to honour its 1994 contract with her and asserts her rights under the Visual Arts Rights Act of 1990.

Last January, DMAC informed Miss of the institution’s plans to dismantle Greenwood Pond entirely, citing the $2.7 million repairs and $8 million continued upkeep that the museum could not afford. Over 40 letters from the arts community, including from DMAC’s former deputy Director Jessica Row and art historian Lucy Lippard, challenged the museum’s decision and asserted both Miss and the artwork’s significance to the land art movement. Greenwood Pond: Double Site is Miss’s largest land art installation and the only one commissioned for a museum’s permanent collection.

Repairs on Greenwood Pond were completed in 2014, but which only granted the artwork an additional ten years before further work would be required. In a statement, Miss claims the institution allowed Greenwood Pond to fall into disrepair: ‘They have only themselves to blame for this avoidable scandal.’

9 April: An Iowa court has issued a temporary restraining order that will halt the demolition of Miss’s installation Greenwood Pond: Double Site (1996). Iowa judge Stephen H. Locher said that Miss’s case established that the artwork ‘faces a threat of irreparable harm because once the artwork is removed, it can never be restored’. A hearing to decide whether the federal suit will move forward is set for 18 April.

‘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,’ said Mary Miss. ‘Let’s use this opportunity to reach an outcome of which we can all be proud.’

Responding to the ruling in a statement, DMAC insisted that their main concern was for public safety. As demolitions plans have been halted, the museum has blocked the access to parts of the installation which it considers a ‘hazardous environment’. A hearing to decide whether the suit will move forward is set for later this month.

3 May: In a nineteen-page decision, Judge Stephen H. Locher has ruled that the Des Moines Art Center cannot demolish Miss’s outdoor installation Greenwood Pond: Double Sit without the artist’s consent, as DMAC has promised not to do so in the contract.

In the meantime, Judge Locher has also ruled that Miss cannot force DMAC to repair the work to its original condition, as the same contract gives DMAC ‘unilateral discretion to decide whether to undertake repairs or restoration’, and DMAC’s decision not to maintain the installation due to high costs has been deemed reasonable.

‘The end result is therefore an unsatisfying status quo: the artwork will remain standing (for now) despite being in a condition that no one likes but that the Court cannot order anyone to change.’

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