The Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) in Iowa is slated to demolish a site-specific outdoor installation after it deteriorated under the museum’s care. DMAC indefinitely suspended public access to sections of Land Art pioneer Mary Miss’s “Greenwood Pond: Double Site” (1989–96), commissioned for the museum’s permanent collection in the surrounding Greenwood Park, last October for structural review before unilaterally deciding to demolish it — a move that sounded alarm bells for the artist and the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF).
“Greenwood Pond: Double Site” integrated visitors into the park’s wetlands through a variety of landscape features that provided different perspectives of the site’s ecology. The project took Miss seven years to complete with the help of various local groups, including the Founders’ Garden Club, the city’s Parks Department, and the Des Moines Science Center.
Last October, DMAC issued a public statement indicating that the installation would be closed to the public in order to conduct a “complete structural review,” engaging the help of an engineering firm. On the museum’s Facebook post regarding the closure, several local commenters noted that the well-loved installation was in poor shape, with statements ranging from “a little rough” to “a hot mess.”
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Miss said that the Art Center had informed her of the closure and review while she was out of the country, but that she was not invited to participate in it. Miss said she touched base with DMAC Director Kelly Baum through a “very general” Zoom call in early November about the history of the installation and its current status, noting that the project was “a key work for [her] and really developed the path [she] has been following ever since” in terms of site-specific outdoor environmental work.
To her shock, the artist received a letter on December 1 from Baum on behalf of DMAC outlining the museum’s decision to deaccession the work. “I was really surprised because I thought we were in the midst of a conversation — I didn’t realize we were at the end of one,” Miss said.
In her letter, Baum cited the “ephemeral” nature of Miss’s original materials as well as Iowa’s extreme climate as primary causes for the installation’s disrepair. The director also conveyed that the estimated cost to rebuild the installation was a “prohibitively expensive” $2.65 million, and that “fundraising to remake the work simply isn’t feasible.” The decision to decommission the work was not made public until TCLF shared it on January 16 on behalf of the artist.
Following the foundation’s publicly distributed notice regarding the impending demolition, the Art Center released a statement reiterating its original claims that the installation’s materiality and harsh weather conditions caused irreparable deterioration and necessitate its decommission.
“The Art Center has devoted considerable resources to ‘Greenwood Pond: Double Site’ over many years, from the original commission to the present day, and it regrets very much that this outdoor environment has deteriorated to the point where multiple elements are unsafe to remain open to the public and are no longer salvageable,” the museum’s statement says.
It’s not the first time the site has fallen into disrepair in its near-30-year existence in Greenwood Park, either. Miss’s installation was included in TCLF’s 2014 Landslide® round-up of at-risk works of landscape art categorized by threats of demolition, neglect, vandalism, and lack of funding. The city committed $800,000 and the Art Center committed an additional $500,000 toward repairs for Miss’s work in 2015 after it landed on TCLF’s list, prompting the artist to reach back out to the nonprofit for support when she received the letter last December.
“I was really disappointed to see that less than 10 years since the big repair, the work was in total disrepair again,” Miss said.
“In commissioning Mary Miss’s Greenwood Pond: Double Site for its permanent collection, the DMAC pledged to ‘reasonably protect and maintain’ the work,” TCLF’s president and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum shared in a statement. “The DMAC’s plan to tear down this widely hailed work is not only unreasonable, it undermines the Art Center’s fundamental role as a responsible steward of our shared cultural legacy.”
A January 17 letter from the museum and its board of trustees addressed to Miss outlined that it was a matter of public safety to dismantle the work, citing extensive dry rot and the installment of materials in an “unstable aquatic environment.”
To Miss, however, it feels especially painful considering the premise of the work’s permanence upon its completion.
“It was especially ironic to me after being included in the Groundswell: Women of Land Art exhibition in Dallas last year and being acknowledged for this work I and other women artists have been doing for so long,” Miss concluded.