Protect subtle intent of cherished sculpture

April 27, 2009
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The city of Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority has agreed to provide $100,000 in funding to a private effort to create a statue of the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks, anticipated to be installed at the gateway to the sculpture installation created by renowned artist/sculptor/architect Maya Lin. It is neither the statue nor the expenditure at issue here, but that the city would continue to impugn a world-class work of art as though it were just another street corner.

Just a month before the city celebrates the 40th anniversary of the largest all-volunteer arts festival in the country, Festival of the Arts, and the 40th anniversary of the historic installation of “the Calder” stable, learned city leaders are thoughtlessly aggrandizing one of the city’s most valued works of art. It is no different than adding a bit of color to the Mona Lisa, or invading the space Alexander Calder carefully calculated among downtown buildings for “La Grande Vitesse.”

How dare the city forget its historic roots in art and design? Such a legacy is sought for communities across this land (especially as it is thought to attract talented millennials); the legacy is genuine here. Just a few blocks from this artistic holy place is Ferris State University’s Kendall College of Art & Design, which draws a world community of the young and talented who would comprehend this disgrace. And just next to the Lin installation is the world’s first (gold) LEED-certified art museum, a silent witness to this heresy.

The Business Journal was criticized in 2001 for its editorial protest of then city commissioner Richard Tormala’s misguided push to “rename” the work of art Rosa Parks Circle, and therein is the seed for the continued desecration. Maya Lin, would have preferred the city use her moniker “Ecliptic,” but the woman who spent five years working on the installation had been impressed with what she termed the “invention” of the public, private and artistic partnership that funded and assisted the work, and she gave sway. She had specifically asked at the beginning of the project that those involved refrain from naming it after anyone in the city. So now does the city believe this is just another “park” area, honoring Rosa Parks?

The intricacies of this site were designed to be subtle. The amphitheater steps, for instance, Lin said, “deliberately feather out — at a little bit of a tilt. I am deliberately playing with a very subconscious level of perception … and that’s probably the most subtle thing — that people will walk on the (ice rink in winter) and know there’s a feeling that it’s slightly floating, but they may not know why.” That same design was a clever way to create accessibility for the handicapped.

“Ecliptic” includes the elements of the architecture surrounding it and in it, a “green” respite represented by mounds or waves of grass as well as a barrier to the street, the shade offered by trees, fountains representing water in various forms, and fiber optics that forever represent a replica of the midnight sky as 1999 became 2000, a new millennium.

That the site is subtle in its tale should not be cause for overrunning it; its protection is more necessary by those who are charged with its preservation.

This is not to dissuade those who seek to honor Parks, but to emphasize it is inappropriate to do so in a place that would denigrate a now priceless installation, one given the largest single grant in city history by many local benefactors.

Those who continue to build the city’s art and design legacy deserve such respect, and Maya Lin’s “Ecliptic” deserves this city’s reverence.

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