Curators and artists have called on the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC), a contemporary art museum in Iowa, to reverse its plan to deconstruct a large-scale, water-bound installation by artist Mary Miss, after the museum said the Land art piece is unsalvageable after years of structural decay and that reengineering it would be too costly.
In letters addressed to the museum’s director Kelly Baum and published by the arts advocacy group Cultural Landscape Foundation, detractors of the removal plan—including the museum’s former deputy director Jessica Row, arts philanthropist Emily Rauh Pulitzer, critic and art historian Lucy Lippard, and artist Martin Puryear—objected to the plan to remove Miss’s Greenwood Pond: Double Site. The piece, constructed of wood that lines a body of water behind the museum’s main campus, comprises a pavilion and a pedestrian walkway that bends around the lagoon’s edge.
Critics of the move to demolish the work, which was installed in 1996 as part of a commission from the DMAC, questioned the museum’s attempts to raise enough funding to salvage the piece and said the removal would result in a major loss to the canon of environmental art, of which Miss, who is now 79, is a key figure.
“It would be a huge loss to the environmental and land art communities,” Lippard wrote in her letter to Baum, which was also sent Cultural Landscape Foundation and reviewed by ARTnews. Last year, Lippard organized a re-staging of the 1971 exhibition “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone,” which included two installations by Miss.
In a letter dated January 31, Rowe, who served as deputy director from 1987 to 2004, described the Greenwood Pond as a “living masterpiece” that “revitalized” a neglected part of the DMAC’s campus. In the 1990s, the DMAC commissioned Miss, alongside artists like Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman, to create public artworks for its campus. While the wood in Miss’s work has faced weather-related damage, the pieces by Serra and Nauman, which were made of industrial materials, have not encountered similar threats.
Last month, the museum’s board sent Miss a letter notifying her of their decision to remove the work, and referenced the artist’s previous acknowledgment that the work may potentially need to be deinstalled by 2012. Extensive repairs on Greenwood Pond were completed in 2014, a process that extended its lifecycle for nearly a decade, but has proven to be only a temporary solution.
Since 2014, the museum’s operating budget has risen by 54 percent from $5 million to $7.7 million in 2023. In their recent correspondence with Miss, the board stated that recent measures to salvage the 30-year-old piece were “not financially feasible.”
Earlier this month, the museum disclosed an estimated reengineering cost of $2.7 million to save Greenwood Pond. Critics opposing the removal plan have raised concerns about the museum’s rationale for not securing funding to preserve the installation permanently. In a letter to Baum, Deborah Leveston, a former DMAC curator, challenged the decision, stating, “DMAC has access to plenty of funding.”
In a recent interview with ARTnews, Baum, who started as director around a year ago, said, “We have relatively limited resources and have to make difficult decisions.” After discussions with the museum’s board, Baum said that the true cost repairing the work and its continued maintenance would be closer to $8 million. To raise that $8 million, she said, the DMAC would need to launch a fundraising campaign to create an endowment to maintain the work in perpetuity, as well as create three new positions—a registrar, a curator, and a facilities associate—to oversee the plan.
Baum said that allocating the museum’s resources to save Greenwood Pond would mean pivoting the museum’s exhibition and programming plans in the coming years. “That investment is not forthcoming. It would require reorienting our entire mission toward the care of a single work of art,” she said.
She estimated that since the work was unveiled to the public in 1996, the center had invested more than $1 million in maintaining it, which she said had been supplied by board members over the past nearly 30 years. Last summer, the museum spent $17,000 on repairs, only for a part of the structure to be condemned by an engineer ten months later. The original cost to construct the piece in the 1990s was $1.4 million.
Critics have raised concern that the loss of a major work by a key woman artist has far-reaching implications. Rowe argued the plan could harm the Iowa museum’s reputation, resulting in the erasure of one of the “contributions of pioneering American women artists.”
Baum said that the DMAC has a track record of committing resources to living women artists through its acquisitions, arguing that the current decision was made as an “ethical” one related to public safety concerns. “We’ll continue to honor Mary,” she said.