Demolition of Mary Miss’s land art installation at Des Moines Art Center is paused, following lawsuit by the artist

Holding Ground

Demolition of Mary Miss’s land art installation at Des Moines Art Center is paused, following lawsuit by the artist

Greenwood Pond: Double Site by Mary Miss at the Des Moines Art Center is under threat of demolition. (© Judith Eastburn/Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

In Iowa, plans to demolish a land art installation from 1996 by artist Mary Miss at the Des Moines Art Center have been stopped, at least for the time being. The temporary restraining order was announced on April 8, the same day demolition of Greenwood Pond: Double Site was slated to begin. The order to stop the art piece’s dismantling, its built elements and ecological landscape, comes after a lawsuit that Miss filed in federal court on April 4.

News of the imminent demolition of Miss’s work, dubbed the “first urban wetland project” in the U.S., was first relayed to the artist in December 2023. In October 2023, the museum installed fencing around the art piece and began dismantling several structures “to consider future plans.”

Miss was surprised by the museum’s swift action to remove the piece from its verdant setting. A flurry of letters subsequently came in addressed to Art Center director Kelly Baum—from other museums, artists, architects, and art enthusiasts—objecting to the demolition. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) has also been leading the charge to save the installation; the foundation listed the work on its 2014 Landslide report of at-risk landscapes across the country.

aerial view of Mary Miss land art installation at Des Moines Art Center
Greenwood Pond: Double Site was installed on the site in 1996. (© Mary Miss/Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Baum responded to this outcry in a statement that detailed what motivated the Art Center to consider tearing down the sprawling installation, among these factors the natural deterioration of wood and other materials, exposure to water and weather, the piece’s sunken trough, and compromised structural integrity.

“These materials have surpassed their lifespan by many years and have been eroded by the water in which they have been immersed, likewise by their exposure to Iowa’s severe weather,” Baum said in the statement. “Ultimately, a substantial portion of the overall work is currently in need of or will soon be in need of major intervention. Reasonable maintenance is no longer sufficient.”

The federal lawsuit brought forth by Miss cited that the museum’s actions go against the terms outlined in the 1994 contract signed by the artist prior to its 1996 installation, among these the Des Moines Art Center’s failure to protect the piece from the “ravages of time and the elements.” It similarly violates statutes in the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990, related to the “destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work.” As per VARA, through the lawsuit Miss is seeking monetary damages.

On April 8, Judge Stephen Locher of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued “a temporary restraining order” that stalls the demolition of Greenwood Pond: Double Site. This judicial move also set about scheduling a preliminary injunction for a future date before a final judgment can be determined on the case.

“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 Miss. “Let’s use this opportunity to reach an outcome of which we can all be proud.”

demolition work underway at Mary Miss land art installation at Des Moines Art Center
Des Moines Art Center had previously started work to dismantle elements of the installation, prior to the lawsuit and temporary restraining order. (Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Demolition work of Miss’s artwork at the Des Moines Art Center has ceased. A statement published by the museum on April 8 stated: “…our responsibility to public safety is paramount, and we believe we are compelled to take action as required per our 1990 agreement with the City of Des Moines to correct what has become a hazardous environment. However, we respect the court’s decision, and we will be pausing plans to remove the artwork from Greenwood Park. The sections declared dangerous and unsalvageable will remain enclosed in protective fencing.”

Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF’s president and CEO also shared a statement that looks forward to a different outcome for the piece. “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,” Birnbaum said.