Monday, October 1, 2007

Sharon Louden vs. Yahoo

VARA Controversy on the West Coast Too

from: Edward Winkleman

Full disclosure: I'm friends with the artist Sharon Louden, whose installation "Reflecting Tips, 2001" is at the heart of this controversy. I've been aware of this ongoing effort to resolve this dispute for some time and, of course, because she's my friend and because I think she's right, am inclined to take her side in this. Read the following with that in mind.

Even though the Buchel vs. Mass MoCA issue is settling down (at least until the promised appeal, if that materializes), that doesn't mean the debate over what the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 actually means is settled. From the other side of the country comes the story about the rights of a corporation (Yahoo) clashing with the rights of an artist (Sharon Louden). Kelly Crow offers the details in today's Wall Street Journal:

When Yahoo moved into its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters six years ago, it kept peace with local authorities by buying and installing $500,000 worth of public artworks.

Now Yahoo says it is suffering for its art.

On its front lawn, the technology giant installed a work by New York artist Sharon Louden that paired real wetlands grass with artificial cattail-like reeds. The grass grew. The city complained. Last year, to rein in its overgrown yard, Yahoo dispatched a grounds crew with weed whackers.

Artificial reeds were cut, bent and twisted. The artist, horrified, responded with letters from her lawyers, which were met with letters from Yahoo's lawyers. "They turned my art into a bad miniature golf course," Ms. Louden says.

As negotiations continue over who controls Yahoo's front yard, the company has found itself caught at the intersection of two artist-friendly laws -- one that made the company install art, and a second that essentially prohibits the company from messing with it.

Like Sunnyvale, many cities across the U.S. have embraced the "Percent for Art" movement. Typically, cities ask or require companies to allocate 1% of their construction budget to buying and prominently displaying art, often in exchange for tax cuts or use of public land. In Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., such ordinances are responsible for dozens of commissions. Typically, city committees approve the potential purchases, while owners are responsible for maintaining the art.
As meddlesome as that may sound for a company, keep in mind that 1) the "Percent for Art" deal is made "often in exchange for tax cuts or use of public land" and 2) back when Yahoo was moving in to their Sunnyvale location, they were very enthusiastic about the art they were acquiring:
[Yahoo] formed an art committee that rejected dozens of proposals before selecting three, including a series of bronze doors around the campus (a nod to Yahoo's role as an Internet portal) and a revolving metal sculpture in a fountain. The committee also tapped Ms. Louden, whose post-Minimalist work has been collected by insurer Progressive Corp. and AT&T.

Ms. Louden proposed creating a landscape that would mimic the natural wetlands that border Yahoo's campus, but with a high-tech twist. She offered to plant 2,500 white wires, clumped into grassy patches and topped with 2-inch reflective squares. During the day, the wires would blend into the surrounding grass. At night, the reflectors would catch the headlights of passing cars on Matilda Avenue and her marsh "grass" would glow.

Mary Ritchey, an art consultant Yahoo hired to help with the project, says the idea was a hit with the committee. "They didn't want anything fancy or flashy," Ms. Ritchey says. "Her piece was beautiful because it was so subtle."
This strikes me as a story that centers around a series of events defined mostly by bad timing. Dennis Taniguchi, the landscape architect Yahoo hired (and who choose the grass for the installation [i.e., that grew too high and led to the city asking Yahoo to trim it back]) had ignored Ms. Louden's suggestions on which grass was best and offered in his defence:
"We were making a lot of decisions quickly," Mr. Taniguchi says. "We weren't sitting around pondering grass."
Then, after the work had been severely damaged, Terry Semel, then Yahoo's chairman and CEO, had his people call the artist to report he was unhappy with the work and wanted it removed. Coming after the work was damaged, it's difficult to assess whether Mr. Semel's feelings about the work are based on the way it originally looked or how it looked after weed-whackers altered it (the WSJ reports that at least half the artificial wires had been cut). He reportedly wouldn't comment for the WSJ article.

Keep in mind that the concept for the piece was to reference the natural wetlands around the property. Here is what the piece looked like before the weed-whackers were sent in (top) and then after Yahoo attempted to mitigate the damage (on their own, without the artist's involvement) by replacing the long grass with something else (bottom):

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