Jutting up from the edge of Peter’s Park in the South End, two waves made up of blue-and-green broken glass tiles, cement and dying grass are what are left of a public art sculpture called the LandWave.
Installed in 2011, the LandWave is a product of the Neck Art Project, an initiative by South End residents and organizations to commission and construct a piece of artwork that marks the site of the historic neck to the Shawmut Peninsula.
The corner of East Berkeley and Washington streets was once the bottleneck to downtown Boston and the only way to get in and out of the city by land. The LandWave is a metaphor of land that was once water – in the early 1800s what was once a swamp was filled in with land, creating the South End. The LandWave also represents the waves of immigrants that have moved into the neighborhood making it a diverse community.
But what was considered a beautiful concept, in theory, turned out to be impractical in real life.
After the LandWave was installed, problems started to rise quickly. The LED lights, meant to illuminate the wave at night broke only months after the sculpture went in. Due to the site-specific installation, funding to repair the lights was too high, and they haven’t worked since.
As the years went on, the LandWave has encountered a brutal beating from children. Sitting right next to a Little League field, kids have been seen climbing the LandWave and even hitting the glass tiles with their bats, smashing it to pieces. Other children on BMX bikes and skateboards see the curved edges as an urban skatepark and ride up and down it.
What was designed to be public art was turned into a jungle gym, causing damage, safety problems, and an eyesore to look at – and residents are not happy with the result.
Now, seven years later the problem is still ongoing. In an effort to figure out a solution the Boston Art Commission (BAC), Boston Parks Department and residents of the South End met during a public meeting during the evening of Jan. 17 at Boston City Lights, to discuss BAC findings.
Residents streamed into the meeting hoping to hear what the next steps would be to remove the sculpture but instead, despite already having numerous public meetings stating their concerns, were meant with a presentation to update the LandWave.
“The Boston Arts Commission since it’s been in existence has never had to decommission artwork before,” said Karin Goodfellow, director of BAC. “It is not something we do often.”
Before a piece of artwork is placed in a public space, the Boston Arts Commission votes on it in order to allow it into the City’s art collection. Once a part of the collection, it becomes property of the City. Goodfellow said that the BAC has been reviewing policies on what it would take in order to remove the LandWave.
The deaccessioning process is the formal removal of the City’s collection and serves as a guideline for taking out public artwork. It states, “the removal from the City’s collection shall be cautious, deliberate, and solely for the advancement of BAC’s curatorial mission.”
For a piece of artwork to be removed, there needs to be a written recommendation of the BAC staff with the approval of the director, majority vote of the BAC board, and mayoral approval.
Additionally, the deaccessioning of all City-owned artwork is subject to State and City procurement statutes and guidelines and must conform to the State’s Visual Artist Rights Act.
The guidelines say that an object can be removed if it is outside the scope of the BAC’s curatorial mission, and the object is beyond the capability of the City of Boston to properly preserve, store, and use the object.
Only in cases where deaccessioned objects and artworks are deteriorated or so worn as to prove virtually unusable or otherwise of no historical, cultural, or educational value, or pose a threat to public safety that requires removal, will the object be discarded or destroyed.
Goodfellow said she is going to take the public feedback heard at the hearing and submit a report to the BAC board to determine what will happen next.
“It’s not about the art,” said Ken Smith, president of the Old Dover Neighborhood Association. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t appreciate the art and lives in this neighborhood, but my concern is safety – I see so many children jump, climb and fall off the LandWave. We are fortunate not to have fatal accident yet, but it is an accident waiting to happen. I will continue to advocate for removal, which is a shame, but it seems like we’ve reached a point of no return.”
In the meantime, the artist of the LandWave, Shauna Gillies-Smith, presented a number of ideas on how to preserve and keep the sculpture while stemming some of the concerns residents have.
“The question is, what are we going to do?” asked Gillies-Smith. “How can we do something that keeps the integrity of the work and serves all of your concerns?”
The current materials used to make up the LandWave are not working. Gillies-Smith proposed changing the glass tiles to a more durable material such as stone, subway tile or powder coated metal.
The grass that is supposed to sweep up the sides of the waves has become dirt and or has large patches. Gillies-Smith said. Instead of grass there could be climbing ivory, and possibly a rose bush at the base to stem children from wanting to play on it, she said.
Also, Gillies-Smith said they could even put a small decorative fence around the sculpture, just like the ones seen in the Public Garden.
The initial cost of commissioning the LandWave was about $500,000. The Browne Fund put in around $125,000 and the rest was raised from foundations and private funds. This price includes the artist selection process, the planning documents, permits, construction and more.
The cost of renovating the sculpture has not been calculated yet, and the Boston Arts Commission will look into it further once a more precise direction is given. The funding will come from the Browne Fund and the City of Boston if the LandWave is going to be refurbished.
But Bob Wells, who has worked on the project since it began, said that the expense of maintaining the LandWave is also very high.
“The maintenance stopped when the vandalism got ahead of it,” said Wells. “We were spending a couple of thousand dollars a year…it just wasn’t enough to deal with the issues.”
The LandWave also legally can’t be moved to a different location, where it would receive less wear and tear from children because it was commissioned as a site-specific piece of artwork.
“I think it is in the wrong place,” said Ann McQueen who helped guide the project since its inception. “No matter what is done it can’t be ok. It impedes on the middle of baseball territory that causes a lot of concerns. It serves as a barrier, a hazard and is not a piece of playground equipment even though that’s what it is going to be used as. I think it needs to be removed.”
These same issues highlighted at the meeting were pointed out in meeting notes dating back to 2013.
“It can’t be repaired, it’s deteriorating,” said Sarah Hutt, an artist who helped commission the project. “You can put something over it, change the plantings, but eventually we will be in the same place one year from now because substantially it’s not there.”
Hutt said an independent conservator looked at the sculpture and pointed out major problems with how the LandWave was constructed including very poor and uneven concrete, making it difficult to install the tiles and lighting.
“We keep talking about what we’re going to do and nothing really ever gets done,” said Hutt. “We’ve had meeting, after meeting, after meeting, and I think it’s time for it to get taken out.”