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Bob Orchard first heard the perplexing news during a private dinner party at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Emily Pulitzer had invited a few dozen close friends to her new modern-art museum on Washington Boulevard just before its grand opening in October 2001.
At the soirée, Orchard and his wife, Lois, sat next to their old friends, famed St. Louis sculptor Ernest Trova and his wife, Carla.
"Bob, do you know what's happened to AV/Bedu?" Orchard recalls Trova asking. Orchard, a retired businessman and well-known arts patron, listened as the 77-year-old artist described the whereabouts of AV/Bedu, the massive abstract sculpture that Trova donated to the city of St. Louis in 1979.
"I was shocked," remembers Orchard.
When Orchard left the party, he headed south on Vandeventer Avenue to investigate. As he approached the intersection of Vandeventer and Laclede avenues, he spotted lights in a grassy, treeless field surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Then he saw it.
AV/Bedu, the eighteen-foot-tall collection of stainless-steel circles, squares, triangles and rectangles, stood a few feet from the fence. The seven-and-a-half-ton sculpture -- which derived its name from an Italian expression meaning "good" -- loomed in front of five of Trova's smaller pieces. No signs were posted to identify the name of the artist or the titles of his work. The indignity of it all, thought Orchard.
The 83-year-old Orchard looked for clues to explain how the $250,000 AV/Bedu sculpture ended up here in midtown -- in between Saint Louis University student housing, a storage warehouse and Fat Freddie's Pub & Grub.
"Here it was on this lousy concrete slab on an empty lot," Orchard says. "I didn't realize it was Saint Louis University property until I looked at the name on the fence. It was obvious what had happened."
For the past two and a half years, Orchard has been battling with Saint Louis University, trying to retrieve the sculpture on behalf of the St. Louis Ambassadors Arts and Fountains Foundation. Orchard has been chairman of the civic fund-raising organization for three decades and originally asked Trova to create the piece for the entrance of the downtown Cervantes Convention Center, which is now part of America's Center.
Orchard maintains SLU president Lawrence Biondi and Adam Aronson, a prominent arts patron and former banker whom Orchard despises, suckered the city out of the valuable sculpture for a $10, ten-year lease. (Orchard and Aronson were once friends, but the two prominent arts patrons became sworn enemies after a business deal went sour in the mid-1990s.)
Aronson denies he had anything to do with the deal. Meanwhile, Saint Louis University says there is nothing improper about the lease, noting that AV/Bedu had been in storage since 1986, when the entrance to the convention center was remodeled.
After the redesign was complete, the sculpture was supposed to be placed in a new spot inside the America's Center complex. But plans for the building's layout changed, and a new location for AV/Bedu was never found. Instead it languished in a basement, all but forgotten.
Now Orchard insists that the sculpture, which was given to the city, should be moved to a city-owned property rather than remain on display on the SLU campus. When he asked Saint Louis University to return the sculpture to the city, he says Biondi demanded $100,000, the amount the SLU president said he needed to recoup the cost of moving the gigantic piece. And when Orchard asked Mayor Francis Slay to call Biondi and convince him to return the sculpture to the city, he says the mayor's office told Orchard to stop calling city hall.
"This is a theft of a piece of city property by Saint Louis University," Orchard contends. "It's a legal theft, but it's still a theft."
On the day after Thanksgiving in 1979, Christmas shoppers bustled from store to store in downtown St. Louis, looking for sales. Singers and musicians crooned holiday carols. Jugglers, actors and magicians entertained children and passed out invitations to a noon ceremony at the Cervantes Convention Center.
All the fanfare was for the much-anticipated unveiling of a new sculpture by Ernest Trova, the local artist who made St. Louis proud with his mercurial rise to international fame in the 1960s. His "Falling Man" series of sculptures -- faceless, genderless stainless-steel figures -- was heralded by New York art critics as the embodiment of man's loss of identity in the machine-powered world.
After "Falling Man," Trova's work evolved to larger multidimensional pieces. In 1975, at the urging of Adam Aronson, Trova donated 40 outdoor sculptures to the county-owned Laumeier Sculpture Park, of which Aronson is the founder. Though city fathers in Sunset Hills labeled Trova's art "junk," today the 98-acre park is one of America's most unique artistic landscapes and the home to more Trovas than any other venue in the world.
In the late 1970s the St. Louis Ambassadors Arts and Fountains Foundation asked Trova to design a sculpture to dress up the Cervantes Convention Center's front door. "The entrance had no sweetness, no nothing," Orchard remembers.
AV/Bedu filled the space beautifully. The tower of shapes glistened on a granite pedestal designed by architect Gyo Obata and featured a plaque dedicated to Arthur Baer, the former chairman and CEO of the Stix, Baer & Fuller department store. The Baer family donated money for materials, Trova donated his time, and the city kicked in $40,000 from the hotel-tax fund.
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