MARIANTHE was destroyed!

Please share this story in case it might lead to some action that will prevent other institutions from destroying works of art built with public funds for the public's benefit.

Marianthe ( 1986), one of my most beautiful and conceptually complex public art commissions (Marianthe, View from ground-level, Close-up), was destroyed on February 6, 2000. I was notified to that effect a few days beforehand by the lawyers of Edison Community College (ECC) in Fort Myers, the ultimate owner of the sculpture. The University of South Florida (USF), its initial owner, was party to the decision.

The sculpture was commissioned in 1985 by the USF when I won a competition for a public sculpture on its Fort Myers campus grounds (which passed to ECC ten years later). I designed and built it for only $48,500, partly with funds from Florida's Art in State Buildings Program ($25,000) and partly with a contribution from the 1985 local USF Student Government Association. When I inspected the piece in the late 1980s, it had only minor damages on the benches. But an S.O.S. conservators' inspection of 1994 (which was communicated to me indirectly in 1997) reported that "treatment was needed" because cracks had developed in several areas. No measure was taken by either the past or present owner, despite my repeated urgent requests after receiving the S.O.S. report.

On the cover of its "Fall 1995 Registration" booklet, USF's entire staff was proudly photographed in the loops of Marianthe (USF staff). Yet in 1999, ECC decided that the sculpture had deteriorated to a dangerous degree and should be destroyed as "an attractive nuisance," declining my suggestion that it be rebuilt (the foundations were a solid slab, so the cost would not have been great, probably less than $100,000).

While my contract with USF specifically obligated the University to "keep the sculpture in good condition and repair" and "not to destroy or alter it", the work unfortunately was not covered by the 1991 Visual Artists' Rights Act. The owners maintained that damages were due to structural defects: the steel reinforcing rods, inserted and sealed in the walls at regular intervals, had rusted and split the bricks. Yet, a structural engineer (whose drawings were approved by USF, as per contract) and the best contractor in the area (George T. Mann) built the work, and I made numerous trips to Fort Myers to supervise its construction.

The sculpture's deterioration was primarily due to lack of maintenance, a frequent problem for public art. If the University had "inspected periodically for damaged mortar or cracked bricks," as my maintenance instructions clearly specified, and if they had repaired any cracks that developed , water would not have seeped into the walls and rusted the re-rods. Would not such repairs have been made on any campus building? The implication is societal disregard for art as cultural patrimony, and a deplorable failure of institutional responsibility for its preservation.

Unfortunately, like most artists, I was powerless, for I could not afford the legal costs of taking on two public institutions, my contract notwithstanding. It is a frightening precedent, yet all I could do was announce, and denounce, the destruction of my work. Please share this information with others who care for the arts. Should you wish to protest, please FAX: Lee Modica, Florida's Art in State Buildings Program, FAX: 850-922-5259, with a copy to: Susan Nichols, Save Outdoor Sculpture (SOS), FAX: 202-634-1435.

Athena Tacha (e-mail: atacha@umd.edu)

(P.S. Numerous protests were Faxed or published, including a short article in Art in America, March 2000, p. 41.)

IF YOU WANT TO READ MORE ABOUT THE WORK:

The idea for this work goes back to some of my earliest architectural sculptures -- the 1971 series of Space Disorientation Mazes. The horse-shoe shape of the Ft. Myers campus and the complex configurations of low-land curlicues along the entire bay suggested curvilinear forms, as did images of shells, opening buds, leaf coral and hurricane whirls -- all plentiful in Florida. I also wanted to create pleasant sitting areas with views of the campus and the pond, as well as a kinesthetic interaction of the sculpture with students who would be attracted to it. However, the inspiration for Marianthe comes ultimately from a deeper level -- my fascination with circles and spirals and my discovery that in many natural phenomena spiral formations can occur "spontaneously" from concentric circles.

To ensure safety and avoid claustrophobic feelings, I sought a type of wall that was solid enough, yet nearly transparent. Open brickwork and decorative fence cement-blocks, often used for patio enclosures in Florida, Mexico, the Mediterranean and other hot climates, are particularly suited for that aim, and can be beautiful as well. Marianthe's lattice-like, floral maze creates a playful and intricate garden pavilion in the middle of the campus, referring to clipped hedge mazes of Renaissance and Baroque European gardens. It provides handsome views of its interwoven walls from all around the paths and campus buildings, as well as five benches in and around the sculpture, oriented for shadow or sunshine at different seasons and times of the day.

The walls are built on a concrete slab with rusticated reddish brick, redder and smoother on the insides of the curves (like the inner surface of shells). The tops of the walls are all stepped, with step "intervals" of changing length depending on the varying incline of the walls, while the average width of the maze's corridors fluctuates between three and four feet (accommodating a wheel-chair at every passage). In the middle of the higher, open spiral is a strong underground light that throws a beam of light upwards, like the luminous center of a galaxy . The center of the second, closed spiral contains a four-foot round planter with bright red flowers, surrounded by a bench for small groups (seminars) or a contemplative sitter.

The title, Marianthe, comes from the Greek root for flower (anthos), just as Florida comes from the Latin (flora). The work was named for my adopted sister in Greece, Marianthe, who was taking care that year of my dying mother.

(Athena Tacha, 1986)



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