In 1996, the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa unveiled pioneering land artist Mary Miss’ Greenwood Pond: Double Site, a series of winding pathways and other structures that allow visitors to explore a 1.6-acre lagoon. It’s thought to be the country’s first urban wetland project.
The installation was supposed to be part of the museum’s permanent collection. But its structures have deteriorated in the nearly three decades since its debut. Last month, museum officials told Miss that they planned to destroy it.
The news came as a shock to the artist.
“I was really surprised because I thought we were in the midst of a conversation—I didn’t realize we were at the end of one,” Miss tells Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar.
In a January 17 statement, officials said they made the decision “for a variety of well-researched and long-documented reasons—principally those concerning structural integrity and public safety, all related to the original choice of materials, their proximity to and/or immersion in water and their exposure to the harsh Iowa weather.”
Miss completed Greenwood Pond: Double Site over the course of seven years. The site’s snaking wooden boardwalk paths and concrete walkways trace a multi-layered map of Greenwood Park’s lagoon. In addition to the pathways, visitors can view the landscape using a variety of other structures: They can, for example, descend into a concrete-lined trough to view the water at eye level, or explore a series of stone terraces atop a hillside covered in prairie grass to admire the water from above.
The Art Center’s decision has sparked concern about the institution’s legal and ethical obligations to Miss. In its contract with the artist, the museum agreed to “reasonably protect and maintain the project against the ravages of time, vandalism and the elements.” According to the New York Times’s Julia Halperin, it performed “extensive repairs” on the structures in 2014 and 2015.
Despite these efforts, Iowa’s brutal climate proved too destructive for the residential deck wood, and the work fell back into disrepair in less than a decade. This time, the museum had no hope of—or budget for—saving the project.
Rebuilding the installation would cost an estimated $2.6 million, an amount that would be impossible for the institution to raise, according to an email from Kelly Baum, the museum’s director, that Miss shared with ARTnews’ Angelica Villa.
“The Art Center has devoted considerable resources to Greenwood Pond: Double Site over many years, from the original commission to the present day,” says the museum in its statement. “It regrets very much that this outdoor environment has deteriorated to the point where multiple elements are unsafe to remain open to the public and are no longer salvageable.”
The museum also has an agreement with the city of Des Moines to remove structures that become unsafe, per the Times. Art Center officials say this commitment outweighs their contractual obligations to Miss.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation, an advocacy organization, disagrees.
When the museum commissioned Greenwood Pond, it “pledged to ‘reasonably protect and maintain’ the work,” says Charles Birnbaum, the foundation’s president and chief executive, to the Art Newspaper’s Claire Voon. The “plan to tear down this widely hailed work is not only unreasonable, it undermines the Art Center’s fundamental role as a responsible steward of our shared cultural legacy.”
The foundation, which works to protect landscapes in the United States that are under threat, has spearheaded fundraising efforts for Miss’ work on several occasions.
“Landscape architecture is treated as a second- or third-class citizen,” Birnbaum tells the Times. “Sometimes it comes from a lack of institutional memory—cultural amnesia for what they had.”
Curator Leigh Arnold, whose recent exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas celebrated women leading the land art movement, attributes Greenwood Pond’s fate to a lack of gender parity. In a statement, she argues that the decision to destroy Miss’ work “while leaving commissioned pieces by male artists untouched” illustrates the “persistent sexism” present in the art world, according to ARTnews.
“Women artists who have been working with the land and thinking about the environment for a very long time—we haven’t been in the spotlight,” Miss tells the Art Newspaper. “And for this to be the way that you resurface, it’s too bad. I think: Would this be happening the way it is now, if it was one of the men who’s considered a master already?”