Temporary Restraining Order Issued to Prevent Demolition of Mary Miss’ "Greenwood Pond: Double Site" by the Des Moines Art Center

On Monday evening, April 8, a temporary restraining order was issued to prevent the demolition of Mary Miss' Greenwood Pond: Double Site. Judge Stephen Locher of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa ruled that “Miss has shown a likelihood of irreparable harm.” The ruling, and a hearing earlier that morning, occurred because Miss sued the Des Moines Art Center on Thursday, April 4, to prevent the site’s demolition. The Art Center had obtained the necessary permits and planned to begin demolition this week. The suit cites the Art Center’s breach of its 1994 contract with the artist and calls for the terms of the contract to be enforced, and violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990 concerning the “destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work.” While VARA does not explicitly exempt site-specific installations, several judges have ruled that VARA did not apply for some such works. Miss is also seeking monetary damages pursuant to VARA. TCLF first exposed the Art Center’s then-secret plan to destroy the work on January 16, 2024. The suit was filed by the Des Moines-based firm Wandro, Kanne & Lalor. The artist is also represented by Dave Bright with the Iowa Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

Beginning in late October 2023, Art Center Director Kelly Baum notified the artist that parts of the installation were badly “eroded” and posed a safety hazard. Sections of the site were fenced off. On December 1, without warning, Ms. Baum emailed Miss to say the artwork would be demolished and that, “we do not and will not ever have the money to remake” the artwork. In other words, no effort would be made and there would be no consultations. The artist’s contract, which the judge's ruling cited, is very explicit:

8.2 Alteration of the Work or of the Site.

(i) Art Center agrees that it will not intentionally damage, alter, relocate, modify or change the work without the prior written approval of the Artist.
(ii) Art Center shall notify the Artist of any proposed alteration of the Site that would affect the intended character and appearance of the Work and shall consult with the Artist in the planning and execution of any such alteration and shall make a reasonable effort to maintain the integrity of the Work.

According to Miss, the demonstration wetland project Greenwood Pond: Double Site is the only installation commissioned for a museum’s permanent collection and her first work to directly engage communities with environmental issues. Former Whitney Museum of American Art Director Max Anderson says the artwork, “enjoys an importance and a prominence in public art second to none in this country.” Nancy Princenthal, former Art In America executive editor, says the Des Moines installation “helped establish a paradigm for public projects that promote deep understanding of the natural environment.” More than 40 letters have been sent to Art Center Director Kelly Baum, who signed the demolition permit, by nationally prominent arts patrons and philanthropists, former museum directors, artists, landscape architects, architects, and others in support of the work and protesting the planned demolition. Patron and philanthropist Emily Pulitzer wrote: “This decision, if carried out, will adversely affect the Museum, its board and you as the Director professionally.”

The Art Center’s leaders blame the installation’s materials, the site’s environmental conditions, the engineering, and even the weather for the decay, and they claim it’s too expensive to repair. The Art Center’s leaders have refused to substantiate these claims and have repeatedly ignored the artist’s questions and document requests. Moreover, works created by Miss in the 1980s, a decade before Greenwood Pond: Double Site, and constructed from similar materials used in the Des Moines installation - treated wood, metal mesh, concrete, and other readily available materials - have been well maintained. One of them, South Cove in Battery Park City, survived 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. The Art Center’s leaders are citing public safety concerns to justify demolition. 

“Judge Locher’s decision is important for Greenwood Pond: Double Site, the renowned artist Mary Miss, and the artists who rely on VARA to protect their artwork,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF’s President and CEO. “We hope the Art Center’s leadership will use this pause as an opportunity to engage in their contractually obligated consultations with the artist to develop a plan that results in the artwork’s restoration.”

“I am pleased and relieved by Judge Locher’s decision not only for what it has done for Greenwood Pond: Double Site, but because it reaffirms the rights of all artists and the integrity of their legacies,” said Mary Miss. “Let’s use this opportunity to reach an outcome of which we can all be proud.”