BAC in Hot Water with Residents after Neglecting to Hold Vote on Landwave

April 13, 2018
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Located in Peters Park along Washington Street in the South End, the Landwave, a public sculpture made up of weaving, back-and-forth, blue-green glass tiles and grassed-over land has been a point of contention with residents and the Boston Arts Commission (BAC) for years.

After numerous pleas to take out the sculpture due to a number of issues including safety concerns, the high cost of maintenance and more, the Boston Arts Commission told community residents that it would be up for a vote this past April 10 at the board hearing.

But, it was not. It was only up for receiving a staff report. A vote on the matter will take place at the next Board Hearing scheduled for May 8.

Representatives showed up to testify not only from South End neighborhood groups but, from the Parks Department, City Council, and the City’s Treasury Department – all believing that a vote was going to be taken.

Chair Lynne Kortenhaus noted that the public agenda did not mention a vote, nor was it listed as open for public testimony.

But, because members of the public showed up to speak she allowed for public testimony to resume. More comments can be made when it is up for a vote at next month’s meeting.

“This is not an easy decision for us to make,” said Kortenhaus. “We wanted this meeting and a second meeting for a public hearing in an effort to hear every possible option and idea to make the best possible decision for the piece of art and the community.”

Christian Guerra, art collection and program manager for the Boston Art Commission (BAC), gave a report to the board that recommended removing the more damaged wave while working with the artist to maintain and rework the remaining wave. Guerra cited an engineering firm report that determined the Landwave is structurally sound and salvageable.

“This Landwave is an art piece that I care very deeply about,” said Shauna Gillies-Smith, one of the three artists who worked on the project. “I am deeply, deeply saddened and distressed on what appears to be vandalism of the wave and the confusion or whatever reason for the lack of ongoing maintenance.”

Gillies-Smith said she understands there is a real concern for safety in terms of the broken glass and kids who climb the structure and can get hurt. But, she said there was a lot of time and energy put into this project that tells the story of the place.

The Landwave commemorates the historical location of the neck, the skinny isthmus that was 100 feet wide that served as the only entryway into Boston. That slender neck of land is entirely unrecognizable now that the South End has been filled in with land.

The artwork was inspired by the simple but profound story – where there was once water is now land. The water is metaphorically represented with blue and green glass tiles that is intertwined with grassed over soil, that represents the land.

“Given the importance of that message and commitment to the art and the challenges of public art, I strongly disagree with the removal of the art,” said Gillies-Smith.

The biggest setback to reconfiguring or restoring this public piece of artwork could be funding.

Drew Smith, head treasurer for the City of Boston, gave testimony saying that it is unlikely that the Browne Fund, (that finically backed the initial project), would give additional funds towards maintenance, conservation or reconfiguration of the Landwave.

On the other hand, he said, it would support the removal of the Landwave in its entirety.

“We have paid a significant amount of money on this structure before,” said Smith. “A year and a half ago, we put about $15,000 towards repairing sections of the Landwave, and those sections have already started rusting and oxidizing.”

The initial cost of commissioning the Landwave was about $5000,000. The Browne Fund put in around $125,000 and the rest was raised from foundations and private funds.

Chris Cook, parks commissioner for the City of Boston, said that the siting of the sculpture is inherently problematic within the programming of the park.

“The chronic maintenance problems with the sculpture are a significant source of tension between the Parks Department and the residents,” said Cook. “Frankly, if the Landwave was any other park amenity inside the park, the Parks Department would have removed it long before. If it was a swing or if it was a bench or a broken water fountain we would have taken action long before this.”

Cook added that he doesn’t know another community that more fully supports art than Boston’s South End.

“In a lot of ways, it is home to one of the most vibrant art communities,” said Cook. “For the community to be united in the removal is not only sad, but it is also poignant.”

State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of the South End also shared his support of the removal of the Landwave, saying it has become a climbing structure for kids at the ballpark for the South End Little League and has pieces that have fallen apart becoming a health hazard in the neighborhood.

“It breaks my heart to say that we need to remove this,” said Michlewitz. “Many members of the community here today share this sentiment because they were also part of that commission of putting this together back in the 2000s. It is unfortunate that we are here today, but it is certainly necessary for Peter Park to thrive and grow.”

At-Large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George sited another problem with the sculpture – rats. After consulting with the Inspectional Services Department she reported that there seems to be very deep borrows underneath both structures which, “carry more rats than any of us can imagine.”

Essaibi-George, who has been out to the site, said she could see that this was once a pretty piece of artwork, but, due to safety concerns and the lack of durability of the sculpture, she is in support of removing both pieces.

“I certainly appreciate the effort and passion put into the creation of this work and the time and the investment as well but, this is a piece that I think has outlived its lifespan,” she said.

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