Volume 16, Number 28 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 9-16, 2003
Artists fight to return sculptures to Soho park
By Lincoln Anderson
Although the Parks Department probably wishes the issue would just go away, Soho art activists and Community Board 2 are not giving up their effort to return Bob Bolles’ scrap-metal sculptures to a small triangle park by the Holland Tunnel.
The issue was on the agenda at Board 2’s Parks Committee meeting on Thursday night.
For now, the art activists are focusing on returning at least one sculpture, Bolles’ “Tree of Life,” to Sunflower Park, located at the intersection of Broome, Watts and Thompson Sts. At last Thursday’s C.B. 2 meeting, they handed out a diagram showing how the sculpture would be professionally installed at the site; a solar-powered light would illuminate the pipe’s interior at night, shining out through the hundreds of small cutout figures and filigrees on its surface. Neighborhood artists say they would pay for the installation and raise funds to cover insurance costs.
For years, Bolles’ sculptures covered what was then an asphalt traffic island. Bolles, a Gypsy, carved the “Tree of Life” on the site with a blowtorch from a large metal pipe. It was the last major work he did before he died in 1980. The sculptures were removed from the location about three years ago, when the Parks Department renovated it into a small, planted park, and are stored at a Parks facility on Randall’s Island.
The artists are concentrating on getting the “Tree” returned because its ownership is clear, meaning it can be donated; it currently belongs to Aaron Rose, a Soho photographer, who bought it from Bolles to preserve it from vandalism, and who is willing to donate it for the park.
The activists point to a C.B. 2 Parks Committee resolution from three years ago about the park. The resolution refers to a meeting between a group of 20 residents and Parks officials — Bob Redmond, a landscape architect, and Gail Wittwer Laird, supervisor of Parks’ Greenstreets program — and states, “The Department of Parks representatives promised at least two or three pieces of [Bolles’] sculpture would be returned and the traffic island would be designed so other pieces could be included.” The chairperson of the Parks Committee at that time was the late Anthony Dapolito.
In June 2001, Adrian Benepe, then-Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, now Parks commissioner, told The Villager that Parks was willing to bring back a few of Bolles’ better sculptures, though he thought the majority were “dangerous, dilapidated, rusting, falling-apart litter magnets.”
Jonathan Kuhn, Parks’ director of art & antiquities, came to last Thursday’s meeting to address the issue of the Bolles sculptures. He said he came on his own, having found out about the meeting after seeing it listed in The Villager, sister publication to Downtown Express. However, he said he did mention it beforehand to Bill Castro, Manhattan borough Parks commissioner. Castro had been at the meeting to discuss the renovation of Washington Sq. Park but left right before the topic switched to the Bolles sculptures.
Kuhn remained and he drew the fire from Soho activists. “The direct question is this — you promised us something and you didn’t come through with it,” said Larry White, a Soho photographer and one of the leading proponents for bringing back Bolles’ sculptures. “We have this on tape.”
Kuhn noted he was not at the meetings where the agreements to return the sculptures were made.
“It’s right here in writing. God almighty,” exclaimed White. “The word is broken.”
“No one is ever responsible,” said Don MacPherson, a C.B. 2 member who voiced frustration at Castro’s having left before they could raise the matter directly with him.
“We want it back,” said Aubrey Lees, the Parks Committee’s chairperson. “Can somebody get a truck and go get it?”
Kuhn said the answer is no and listed numerous reasons why, citing guidelines going back to 1860. First, he said, the city, in its donation guidelines, doesn’t accept ready-made art pieces for parks, and has turned away hundreds of art gifts over its history because they weren’t designed with the sites in mind. Also, for any permanent public artwork, the city assumes liability, he noted; if someone has an accident, such as a slip, involving the artwork, it could end up costing the city millions of dollars — “more than the [cost of the] Washington Sq. Park renovation,” Kuhn pointed out. In addition, the city’s Art Commission would not accept the piece because there was not a competitive process. Finally, he said, returning the sculptures could set a precedent that could be invoked at any of its 1,700 other parks, and that, “We can’t create policy park by park.”
“This is a different case,” stressed Tobi Bergman, a Parks Committee member. “Promises were made. Those promises should be kept. We were told that some of these pieces would be brought back. Parks never said, ‘They will be brought back if you get insurance.’ ”
“I don’t have any evidence of the commitment you’re referring to,” responded Kuhn.
Kuhn said they could bring some of the pieces back on a temporary basis; temporary installations can last a year, but are typically three to six months, he said. But the Soho artists and C.B. 2 committee weren’t interested in anything less than a permanent installation.
“Give us [dollar] figures. Tell us what we have to do,” said White. “Everything’s been so weird so far. We don’t know what to do.”
The Parks Committee approved a resolution recommending that the Bob Bolles sculptures be returned.
White later said that in a conversation with Kuhn in the hallway after the meeting things went much better and seemed more positive. Ken Reisdorff, owner of Broome St. Bar, told Kuhn that the sculptures were left to his family, meaning they could be legally donated to the site. White said they’d ultimately like to have two or three of Bolles’ sculptures returned and also have a space for temporary installations.
White claims the sculptures meet Parks’ requirements in that they were site specific, designed for and created on the site. But Kuhn called them “guerilla art in a quasi-public space.”
The Soho artists and activists feel Bolles’ works embodied the gritty spirit of early Soho, unlike what they describe as the bland park there now. Not only that, White said, but homeless people, screened from view by its foliage, now use the park as a bathroom.