6 March 2024

Greenwood Pond: Double Site

The Des Moines Art Center
imperils a seminal land artwork


by Kate Mothes

When a museum adds artwork to its permanent collection, the institution has an obligation to care for and preserve it. But what happens when, instead, the museum itself determines the artwork’s destruction?

“We’ve removed ourselves so much from the environments that we live in, especially in cities,” says acclaimed New York City-based artist Mary Miss in a short video. “And I really have this aspiration to try and allow people to understand or connect with the natural systems and infrastructure that supports their lives.”

The video was produced on the occasion of the recent exhibition Groundswell: Women of Land Art by the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. The show ran through January of this year and showcased the significantly overlooked narrative of women artists of the land art movement for the first time. Within weeks, incidentally, Des Moines Art Center director Kelly Baum contacted Miss about the fact that the Iowa museum could no longer afford to maintain one of the artist’s seminal works and planned to dismantle it in the spring.

In 1996, Miss installed the expansive, innovative artwork known as Greenwood Pond: Double Site. Starting in 1989, the artist worked with the museum and a number of local groups, like the Founders Garden Club, Des Moines Parks Department, and Des Moines Science Center, to create an elegant installation that invited the local community to experience the park in a new way.

“I decided to collaborate with various local groups to make a place which would operate on several levels: a site which could be layered onto another site and which would have multiple readings,” Miss says. She continues:

The importance of the park to the immediate neighborhood is made apparent by invoking and building upon layers of associations and memories which have collected over time. Walking around the pond, shifting between overviews and cut-outs within the water surface, the individual visitor is able to trace an intimate view of the place while putting together a new understanding of how it operates visually and physically. Additionally, the makeup and processes of a Midwestern wetlands become clearer as one understands their role in the immediate environment.

Miss’s installation invites viewers to see the park from various vantage points. A walkway overhanging the edge of the pond enables visitors to walk out over the water, while around the edge of the pond, a ramp ventures into the water, bringing the visitor down to surface level. An arc of wood pilings leads toward a concrete-lined trough dug that sit inside the pond, a kind of empty pool within a pool, bringing people into a focal point of the park. Movement is key to the experience.

Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Des Moines, Iowa, 1996. Photo © Mary Miss

Miss said in a statement to The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) that she envisioned a project that expanded upon the definition of a museum and its displays: “Rather than place a sculpture as an object in the landscape, how could a work take the site, its history, ecology, social nature into consideration? And how could a museum begin to operate outside its walls, find new ways of involving people with art who might never step inside a museum?  These were issues that were important to the museum at this time.”

The piece was a milestone in Miss’s career, taking seven years to complete. The intention to remove it calls into question how museums anticipate being able to maintain site-specific installations such as this one. Greenwood Pond: Double Site is a particularly apposite example, too, as much of its composition is wood or metal and it sits literally in a pool of water. It’s difficult to imagine that the museum wouldn’t have foreseen that without regular maintenance, significant repairs would be required before too long.

It’s not the first time that TCLF has advocated for Greenwood Pond: Double Site. In 2014, the piece was included in Art and the Landscapepart of a series called Landslide that marks a selection of notable sites and works under threat of demolition or neglected.

Museums, by their very nature, must think long-term. As a project collectively organized with numerous groups to begin with, why not open the discussion with the community more broadly? The art center’s move—and indeed perhaps its initial purchase—signals a misguided sense of, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” rather than a proactive plan to care for the work and, in turn, maintain the integrity of the institution itself. If it were to be torn out, could it—or would it—ever be put back together again?

Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Des Moines, Iowa, December 2023

“As the only large scale sited work of mine that is owned by a museum to date,” Miss says, “it is particularly important. It is my understanding that the mission of museums is to steward the works in their collection and that this was therefore a permanent part of that collection.” The work is significant in its site in the Midwest, often viewed as “flyover country” in the art world sense, where permanent installations and institutions of this caliber are much fewer and further between than in cultural hubs on either coast, or in the Southwest where land art behemoths like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Donald Judd, or Walter de Maria, or Nancy Holt made their mark.

Despite—and rather ironically in light of—the recent attention on land art and earthworks by women, the Des Moines Art Center’s decision to demolish the work came as a shock to the artist, whose contract with the museum from the 1980s, when the institution initiated the project, specified that Greenwood Pond: Double Site was a permanent work. “She also questioned how the art center let it deteriorate, its cost estimate for repairs, and why it’s not willing to launch a fundraising campaign to finance needed fixes,” wrote Scott McFettridge in a recent AP article.

The blunt decision to dismantle the work “raises numerous legal and ethical issues and questions about the art center’s stewardship of the artwork and commitment to the artist,” TCLF says in a statement. “And it appears to violate the DMAC’s 1994 contract with the artist in which it pledged to ‘reasonably protect and maintain’ the work.”

The art center’s decision has been met by dozens of letters from curators, architects, artists, activists, and community advocates. Tamsin Dillon, curator and director of Art in Public, writes:

The overriding priority here is the iconic status of Greenwood Pond; a key work and a turning point in terms of art in relation to the natural environment and as a hugely significant work in the career of Mary Miss, one of the pioneers of land art. Clearly there are many people, myself included, who believe the brave vision and commitment behind this commission almost 30 years ago is woefully undermined by the decision to destroy it.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation is facilitating a 75-minute webinar on March 13 in response to the threatened demolition, bringing together leading women land art artists, experts, and scholars to discuss the current state of the land art movement and how to ensure its future. You can register via TCLF’s website.

Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Des Moines, Iowa, 1996. Photo © Mary Miss
Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Des Moines, Iowa, 2014. Photo by Judith Eastburn. courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Greenwood Pond: Double Site, Des Moines, Iowa, 1996. Photo © Mary Miss

All images © Mary Miss, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

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