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The Tilted Arc Controversy: Dangerous Precedent?

Harriet F. Senie
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    The Tilted Arc Controversy
    Book Description:

    Since its installation at and subsequent removal from New York City’s Federal Plaza, noted sculptor Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc has been a touchstone for debates over the role of public art. Installed in 1981, the 10-foot-high, 120-foot-long curved wall of Cor-Ten self-rusting steel instantly became a magnet for criticism. Harriet F. Senie explores the history of Tilted Arc, including its 1979 commission and the heated public hearings that eventually led to its removal in 1989. She examines the tactics of those opposed to the sculpture and the media’s superficial and sensational coverage of the controversy, reframing the dialogue in terms of public art, public space, and public policy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9272-9
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. Prologue
    (pp. 1-20)

    WhenTilted Arcwas commissioned in 1979, strong federal support for art had been in place for little over a decade and was already beginning to be questioned. The first phase of the public art revival of the late sixties appeared to be drawing to a close, and Richard Serra was considered an important younger artist working in ways that expanded definitions of modern sculpture. Enjoying the patronage of important dealers and museums in the United States and Europe, he had already begun a career in public art, and several of his commissions were aborted or re-sited or became the...

  7. 1. Commission, Installation, Removal
    (pp. 21-36)

    Throughout 1979 the GSA was plagued by scandals of corruption involving kickbacks from private contractors. The agency spent approximately five billion dollars annually as the federal government’s purchasing agent but was reportedly losing millions each year to theft and corruption. After numerous fraud trials several GSA employees received jail sentences.¹ Art seems to have been the least of the GSA’s problems.

    When Richard Serra was commissioned to create a sculpture for Federal Plaza in 1979, Donald Thalacker, the head of the GSA’s Art-in-Architecture program, had just finished writing a book documenting the program’s accomplishments.² Jay Solomon, appointed by President Jimmy...

  8. 2. Public Opinion
    (pp. 37-54)

    Contrary to nearly all published commentary, there is no accurate measure of public response toTilted Arc.Although there is a surviving archive of letters at the GSA and NEA, the actual numbers of people represented are relatively small and may not be representative. Nevertheless, even this sample reveals that although the controversy was always presented as an “us versus them” narrative, with “us” variously constructed as the art world, the government, or the public at Federal Plaza, there wereTilted Arcsupporters and detractors in all the alleged camps. Common to all of them was a self-righteous rage that...

  9. 3. Reframing the Controversy
    (pp. 55-120)

    TheTilted Arccontroversy raised many issues in related but distinct arenas: art, public art, public space, and public policy. Each context suggests a different primary audience with different expectations. In every frame, the controversy was caught in a paradigm shift of monumental proportions.

    To the art world, however fractured, an art frame is always present, so much so that it becomes invisible. It is our given. To the art-informed audience, an art frame is at least implied. To the art-interested public, the frame is desirable but may not be immediately apparent. Whatever art may be—allusive, metaphorical, experiential—it...

  10. 4. After Tilted Arc
    (pp. 121-146)

    The impact of Diamond’s hearing was immediate, a harbinger of things to come. Pending the results, GSA regional directors reportedly put works of art on hold.¹ In an action similar to Diamond’s, the GSA regional director in Atlanta offered the city’s Lloyd Hamrol sculpture to the High Museum. The museum refused “as a matter of principle.”

    Without consulting the State Arts Council, Alaska’s Governor William Sheffield had Robert Murray’sNimbus(1978) removed from the front of the Juneau courthouse and placed indefinitely in storage. The sculpture, partially funded by the NEA Art in Public places program, had been in dispute...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 147-154)

    The dangerous precedent feared by many—that the removal ofTilted Arcwould lead to a wholesale destruction of public art or the end of the GSA’s percent-for-art program—did not occur. The sculpture is gone, Federal Plaza has been redesigned, and most of the arguments raised at the hearing and afterward have been proved specious by what followed. Nevertheless,Tilted Arcremains a specter, haunting or guiding (depending on one’s viewpoint) public art in this country and elsewhere, imposing a degree of self-censorship among artists and arts administrators that is both difficult to gauge and more insidious than overt...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 155-192)
  13. Index
    (pp. 193-206)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-207)