Artist Mary Miss Sues to Stop Des Moines Art Center From Demolishing Her Work

Museum officials worry the installation is a public safety issue.

Mary Miss, Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Des Moines. Photo: Judith Eastburn, courtesy the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

The artist Mary Miss has filed a lawsuit against the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa to stop it from demolishing an outdoor installation that the museum said has become too costly to repair and maintain.

The Art Center commissioned the installation, Greenwood Pond: Double Site, in April 1994 and it opened in 1996. It boasts boardwalk paths that lead walkers up and down ramps around the edge of a small lagoon, flanked by various architectural elements, within a park owned by the city of Des Moines. Miss is seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the removal of the installation, which is owned and managed by the museum.

“The Art Center Board and Director’s lack of consultation, disregard of their contractual obligations, and shameful treatment of the artwork have forced this issue into the courts,” Miss said in a statement. “They have only themselves to blame for this avoidable scandal.”

In October 2023, the museum announced that it had suspended access to portions of the boardwalk and said it would conduct a structural review, while putting up fencing to enclose some areas of the piece. It suggested then that some parts of the work could be dismantled.

The Des Moines Art Center notified Miss in December 2023 that it planned to tear down the work, which quickly raised questions about the museum’s stewardship of the piece over the past three decades and its contractual obligations.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, an organization that advocates for preserving cultural sites such as Greenwood Pond, released a statement in January noting that the work had been included in its 2014 report about land-based art that faced threats of demolition, neglect, poor maintenance, vandalism, or lack of funding. The 2014 report helped buy the installation some time, attracting more than $800,000 in funding toward a $1.3 million renovation of the work. In 2015, city officials said they would dredge the pond and replace wooden structures that had deteriorated over the years.

The organization also collected several letters of support—from artists Lucy Lippard, Laurie Anderson, and Jeffrey Schiff, and arts patrons Agnes Gund and Emily Rauh Pulitzer, among others—urging the museum to preserve the artwork.

But on April 3, the Des Moines Art Center said it had finalized plans to remove the installation “in the interests of public safety,” following consultation with city officials and structural engineers.

“We noted a recurring pattern of structural, operational, and material problems dating back to 1996 that made the artwork vulnerable to decay, erosion, regular seasonal fluctuations, and extreme weather-related events, such as floods,” the museum said, stating that such repairs had cost it more than $1 million over the years. “This information was sobering, and it prompted a serious moment of reckoning.”

The dismantling of the installation is expected to take between 12 and 15 weeks and will be conducted at the expense of the museum, it said. The work is expected to begin April 8.

But Miss, in her lawsuit filed with a federal court in Des Moines, said that the agreement she signed with the museum for the commission of the piece prevents it from being altered, relocated, modified, or changed without her written permission.

In the agreement, the museum “recognized that maintenance of the project on a regular basis is essential to the integrity of the project” and assured that it would be properly maintained and protected against the “ravages of time, vandalism, and the elements.”

Under the agreement, Miss retained the right to approve of any restorations made during her lifetime and would be paid a fee for any such repairs. She said that the museum has failed to disclose whether it made any attempt to maintain the project in the past 10 years since funds were raised for the renovation of the work.

Miss’s claims are made under the Visual Arts Rights Act of 1990, which her legal team argued grants her the right to prevent the destruction of the project as a work of recognized stature. To defend this claim, her lawsuit pointed to comments from former Whitney Museum of American Art director Max Anderson who said the installation “enjoys an importance and a prominence in public art second to none in this country.”

“The current leadership of the Des Moines Art Center has offered no alternatives to demolition,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF’s president and CEO. He added that the museum “brought the city along on the idea that this misguided and highly unethical action is just a routine business decision.”

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