Then, in 1981, a federal program called the General Services Administration commissioned Richard Serra to construct a work of art to fit into the space, and Serra produced the soon to become notorious Tilted Arc.
Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, raw steel, 1981, photo credit
But at least some of the workers in the surrounding high-rises didn't buy it. They felt that Serra's sculpture made the plaza even more ugly and uncomfortable than it was before, and that they wanted a sculpture in the plaza that encouraged use for rest and recreation, not one that made you want to hurry past before it fell on you. Inchoate grumblings eventually turned into an organized protest spectacle, when in 1984, William Diamond, the new administrator of the General Services Administration, took it up as his own personal campaign to get the sculpture removed. It took four years of highly contested debate, with strong voices both for removing the sculpture and keeping it, before it was dismantled and destroyed (I'm not actually sure how "destroyed" exactly... maybe melted down?) in 1989. Goodbye Tilted Arc.
Except, not completely goodbye, because the story of Tilted Arc, raises some fascinating questions. Who was in the right in this debate: Serra and the supporters of his sculpture, or those numerous workers who were not interested in the art-for-art's-sake thing but wanted a sculpture in the plaza which made them feel comfortable? Do artworks in public spaces have an obligation to make the public using the space feel good, or can they portray some other message? I'm eager to know what you think.
P.S. Apparently the poor plaza, relieved of Tilted Arc, was fated for ugliness. It was redesigned, but by all accounts, not very well. According to the website Project for Public Spaces, the plaza today is "an awesomely bad complex so disjointed it boggles the mind."