The Humid Touch

The Pulitzer gives Serra's "Joe" a few weeks' rust and relaxation

Kay Porter, director of communications for the Saint Louis Art Museum, can't recall any instances of vandalism at the museum but says she'd talk about it to the press if something did occur. "We certainly have always made a practice to be responsive to inquiries, and I don't think we're going to stop doing that," Porter says. Then again, she says she understands Waschek's dilemma. "Obviously, anything that brings this to public attention sparks activity," she notes. "When things appear, ideas get planted. Sometimes people try to copy them, and that's the concern."

The nature and placement of Serra's "Joe" make it difficult to keep an eye on visitors who venture inside. A Pulitzer Foundation staffer confirms that the museum makes use of two surveillance cameras, but they can't possibly cover every square inch. The only way to do that would be to station security guards inside the piece, or to hang a camera directly overhead. But either measure would detract from the "Joe" experience.

Though Pulitzer officials refused to cite any specific Serra-sullying incidents, Schuyler Andrews, president of the University City art cooperative Craft Alliance, confirms that kids on field trips are likely culprits. Last year, Andrews says, a young visitor from Craft Alliance was scolded for getting a little too up-close and personal. "This was a kid who was sort of showing off for his friends," says Andrews, explaining that the youngster rubbed off some of the rust from the sculpture. "It's like wiping a little bit of the excess rust off with your finger, which was easily smoothed over. The kid was reprimanded."

Andrews, who says Craft Alliance continues to have a strong relationship with the Pulitzer Foundation, adds that whereas in a museum there's an unspoken understanding that interaction with artworks is forbidden, the lines are less clear with outdoor sculpture. As an example she cites Serra's "Twain," a frequent target of vandals.

"You can't put a piece like that out and expect that the potential for damage does not exist," says Andrews. But the alternative is to forbid visitor interaction entirely. "That's the other option: to say, 'No, this is all behind glass.' But I think that the value is exposing the public to the works in the context in which they should be seen. It's just important to make people aware of what a gift this is, to have the public access to this art."

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