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Hand-Tufted Wool Rug
Richard Serra v. the Office of Operations, GSA and subsequent appeals and lawsuits became some of the more notorious cases in the history of art law in the United States - addressing the complex issues of artist's moral rights, state censorship, and the limits of free speech in a public art context.
In 1972, the General Services Administration (GSA) established its Art in Architecture program, which mandated that one half of one percent of all new federal building projects budgets be allocated to the incorporation of publicly-sponsored art. In 1979, the GSA asked Richard Serra to create and install a public sculpture on a plaza adjacent to a federal office complex in lower Manhattan, a service for which Serra would be paid $175,000.
The GSA had a history of commissioning well-respected sculptors: Both Claes Oldenberg's Batcolumn in 1977 and Alexander Calder's Flamingo in 1974 were paid for by the GSA and installed in large outdoor public spaces in Chicago. After about a year of interviews, drafts, and reviews by both art-world appointed civilians and government officials, Serra installed Tilted Arc, a 120 foot long by 12 foot high curved steel structure, in the middle of Federal Plaza in New York City.
Unfortunately, nothing was done to prepare people for the arrival of the steel sculpture and the reaction of office workers to the piece was negative: it was immediately seen as ugly, oppressive and a ‘graffiti catcher’. Two petitions seeking the removal of the piece quickly gathered 1,300 signatures.
The GSA stood firm, arguing that the 1,300 signatures on the petition represented a minority given that there were 10,000 employees in the building. However, the direction of the GSA changed dramatically in 1984 with the arrival of a new Republican-appointed regional administrator, William Diamond.
Diamond arranged for a three-day public hearing about the possibility of relocating the work, and appointed himself head of a panel of adjudicators. At the public hearing 180 people spoke, including Serra, who pointed out that the work was site-specific and would not function as an artwork if moved elsewhere. He also flatly denied that it interfered with social use of the plaza. In all, 122 people, including many eminent figures from the art world, spoke in favor of retaining the piece, while only 58, mainly those working in the nearby offices, testified against it. Despite these figures, the panel voted to relocate Tilted Arc. Serra sued, but the courts ruled that the GSA owned the piece and could do what it wished with it.
The sculpture was finally removed on March 15th, 1989. Cut into three parts, Tilted Arc – or, rather, what remains of it – is stored in a warehouse. The artist regards the work as destroyed because it was removed from its intended site. He also noted that, in disregarding his argument and considering the work as movable, the GSA had made the work ‘exactly what it was intended not to be: a mobile, marketable product’.
To this day Serra insists that the work can never be installed anywhere other than the Federal Plaza. And although the GSA has made attempts to reinstall the sculpture at an alternate location, organizations have been reluctant to go against the wishes of the artist. As a result, Tilted Arc has remained in storage for the last 30 years.