Picking up the pieces
Public artists reflect on recent acts of vandalism and theft in downtown Little Rock.
In many ways, it’s the democratic ideal. Creations by the people for the people lining the streets of our city for all to admire, critique, ignore.
It’s an outdoor museum, free and wholly accessible. But the flip side of that coin — those outdoor museums of silent statues are vulnerable to vandalism and theft. The River Market has seen such crimes in recent months, including the theft of three bronze statues from the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden and the destruction of an installation outside the Central Arkansas Library System’s Cox Building in November.
If public art is akin to an outdoor museum, the city’s most ardent curator would be University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor Michael Warrick. He says it’s hard not to take vandalism personally.
“When public art is destroyed, it’s my least favorite subject. If [the criminals] knew the people it was created for or understood the people that created it, they might think twice about destroying it,” he said.
Warrick’s installation outside the Cox Building, “Fusion, 2009,” was knocked from its base in late November. The globe-shaped statue was commissioned to remember a longtime security guard in the Central Arkansas Library System named Vernon Johnson.
“He was a security guard who had worked there for 25 years. He was a big guy, kids loved him. His handprints on the statue signified that he was an accessible person,” Warrick said. “I’m more saddened for his widow and his family and the disrespect for that.
“They had to work hard to knock it over. It’s usually removed with a crane or a hoist,” he said. “They must have had some strong liquor that night.”
Repairs and reinstallation of “Fusion, 2009” are on hold until construction on downtown sites like the Arcade and a new parking area are completed, said Central Arkansas Library Director Bobby Roberts.
“We are going to build a parking deck on our parking lot which will probably start in about April, and take about a year to build. We’ll redo the west end of the parking lot and turn it into a garden and reset that statue there. We don’t want to reinstall it on a construction site.”
But when the statue was knocked over around 2 a.m., it was construction workers that helped pick up the pieces in the daylight. “It weighs, I would imagine 800 or 900 pounds, at least,” Roberts said. “We have a crew out here working at the Arcade, and they were nice enough to pick it up and put it on Michael’s trailer. The damage is not irreparable by any means.”
The whole thing was caught on videotape, Roberts said.
“It was three people that came across the parking lot, I’m sure it was just a lark, sounds like a good idea to do something like that. I’m really surprised they could’ve pushed it over, it was cement and had a stud in the middle and it’s a pretty hard piece to move.”
Though Roberts called that early morning act spontaneous, Warrick said when bronze statues were stolen from the Vogel Schwartz Garden, roughly a week earlier, that crime had to be premeditated.
The three pieces taken — “Conversation with Myself,” a piece of a long-legged figure; “Birds of Happiness,” of two birds in flight; and “Uptown Saturday Night,” an 8-inch statue depicting a female dancer — were likely taken to a scrap yard.
“They would probably take the statues out of the city,” he said. “They’d be intent on destroying them and not selling them.”
Two of the three statues were attached by bolts that would have required equipment to cut.
“They had to come prepared with tools or the notion that they would be stealing the statue,” Warrick said. “This was a most flagrant abuse of the garden.”
The pieces were insured by the city of Little Rock for $20,000, according to a story published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The piece “Uptown Saturday Night” had been the target of incivility once before, said its creator Bryan Massey. Before it was completely installed, it was unscrewed from its base and tossed into the grass.
Massey, a professor of art at the University of Central Arkansas with two other pieces installed in the Vogel Schwartz Garden and a few others around town, says he’ll recast the statue once the insurance paperwork is completed. He doesn’t believe it will be recovered.
“I say it is what it is. People want to steal they’re going to steal. It’s the risk you have with public art,” he said. “There’s no need to worry about it because there’s nothing you can do about it when it’s gone. You just do [your work] again, and hope they don’t come back.”
Warrick, who also “curates” the Bernice Garden and serves as a public art consultant, said he takes that risk into account each time a new piece is installed.
“We’ve made a tremendous effort in this community to help bring the notion of art in the public realm,” he said. “My concern about the idea of having work out in the public is that it’s there to help us appreciate it, but there’s naturally a risk and we’re willing to take that risk. But we’re always saddened when that risk is violated.”