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A Crime Against Art


When I first saw the new scale model and realized that the proposal dooms the Halprin work, I thought I was mistaken. When I called the museum, I discovered that already the spin was in place: The fountain is expensive to maintain, inaccessible to wheelchairs and noisy, according to museum spokesman Richard Woodward, who asserted that the work is not one of Halprin’s best works. “In that case: if the museum had Tiffany lamps, which were not his best ones, which ones would we discard?” I asked.

It’s not a specious parallel. As happened with Louis Comfort Tiffany, Lawrence Halprin is seeing some of his work threatened, but he has also seen successful efforts to restore them. At the age of 87, Halprin recently challenged the city of San Francisco’s plans, which he called “despicable,” to fill in his fountains at the United Nations plaza. Tampering with a Halprin work, let alone destroying it without responsible plans for relocation, the action by the VMFA is dead wrong.

Halprin enjoys enormous stature as an artist and visionary whose designs have been recognized worldwide as civic assets and as catalysts for positive social change (http://tclf.org/view_halprin.htm). The Richmond fountain (and sculpture garden) is a masterpiece, although it requires, like any large fountain, water and expensive maintenance.

In March of this year, Halprin received the National Endowment for the Arts gold medal from the president of the United States. The award was prompted by the celebrated Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (1997) on the mall, a Halprin design on which he worked — off and on — for 25 years. Perhaps best known for his works at Ghirardelli Square and the U.N. plaza, both in San Francisco, and his Portland, Ore., fountains, Halprin’s Haas Promenade (1987) overlooking Jerusalem is one of his most profound, if lesser-known works. More than a mile of walkways connecting plazas and overlooks into both Israeli and Palestinian lands, the Haas Promenade became a tourist attraction in Israel because it was designed to encourage people of all faiths, particularly Jews and Moslems, to walk peacefully side by side. Until the intifada stopped that, along with tourism in Israel, it was very successful. As a unifying element in a torn society, as a catalyst for positive social change, is there a better symbol of reunion and healing? It seems a miracle that Halprin, who left Brooklyn at age 17 to work on the first kibbutz in Palestine, was able to return some 60 years later to see his Haas Promenade dedicated.

It is a tragedy that people entrusted with protecting works of art cannot or will not find a way to design the new VMFA expansion around the Halprin work in a manner that would embrace and preserve it.

As I read in The New York Times, “In Richmond, a Museum Aims for the Big Leagues,” I felt that destroying a major artwork is not the path to the“big leagues.” Rather, it is one way for the museum to be viewed by some as a second-rate institution, which it is not. Because the museum and architect have (so far) excluded Halprin, it is their responsibility to revise their program rather than make the irreversible, binary decision to destroy the work.

According to Woodward, two proposals were considered: one with, and one without, the fountain. By a vote of the trustees, the proposal without the fountain won, supposedly for lower cost. Whether the director and architect are marching to orders from the trustees, or being guided by their own hasty decision-making, they need to reconsider.

When word gets out among artists, architects and landscape architects that this museum will recklessly trash a major work, who will offer their best efforts to the VMFA? Will benefactors think twice before donating collections? Brand, who may have his hands tied in this, said in The Times: “I realize that we can’t be the next MoMa, and we can’t be the next Met, and we don’t want to be. But visitors can have experiences here that they can’t have there.”

His intentions sound noble, but on this particular issue, he is right: I do not want to experience the loss of the Halprin work, and have yet to hear a good reason why anyone should. I admire the voice and vision of an artist who can achieve what decades of fighting never have: the creation of a physical place where warring cultures can be at peace with each other. I do not want that voice to be diminished, especially during this time of war, and I do not want to see any part of that vision molested. S

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Burrell

Mark Burrell is a photographer and journalist. He lectured at the VMFA on the historic architecture and works by Louis C. Tiffany in Havana, Cuba.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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