Public Art Or Public Nuisance? Mound Of Dirt Art That Won’t Go Away

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

Those familiar with the former federal office building in Wenatchee, Washington, who have actually noticed, are familiar with the strange earthen mounds situated at the Northwest of the property. They were constructed in 1981 by Artist Stan Dolega who received $19,000.00 (about $54,000.00 today) from the government to place the dirt, a concrete retaining wall, and sod.

Anecdotally, the work faced much criticism since its inception as being the archetype of government waste through mandatory spending on artwork. It was not popular with those in the community and faced considerable ridicule as to its lack of utility, and that could credibly be claimed that the government paid nearly twenty grand for a pile of dirt.

Now the city wants to remove the mounds to make room for additional parking but discovered that it cannot due to a covenant designed to protect a problematic artwork that simply will not go away.

Signage along the mounds describe a fanciful inspiration:

“Environmental Sculpture — Artist Stan Dolega — June 12, 1980. While at first glance this work appears to be symmetrical, and therefore instantly ‘understood’ the viewer will intuitively know that such is not the case — and, in fact, the viewer will experience a sense of mystery. Earth mounds are an ancient form of visual expression. There is something mysterious about earth mounds, especially those which are obviously man-made.”

What isn’t mysterious about the mounds is the headache for which they cause.

More photos and platitudes can be found HERE. One generally must observe the mounds from above to see features of the work. For the most part it’s obstructed by itself when seen from ground level.

The mounds over the years required continual upkeep and were difficult to mow and keep grassed. At one point a FlyMo type mower tied to a rope served as its caretaker but eventually it became the task of maintenance crews pushing heavy mowers up and down nearly forty-five degree inclines during most of the year. Soon teenagers discovered the fun of using the mounds as ramps for dirt-bike stunts and wore away the grass until bare earth trails surfaced.

The mounds fell into such disrepair the GSA installed in the early 1990s a metal fence around the mounds to prevent further deterioration. The grass came back but the fence obstructs visibility.

Now, thirty-seven years later, the property was sold and a new occupant and the City of Wenatchee wants to remove the mounds to make way for additional parking–which has historically been lacking. Unfortunately, the city might have its hands tied and has faced pushback from the GSA, who formerly owned the property and claims that under the deed of sale the city cannot take down the art work.

Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kunz hired a consultant to study the feasibility of removing the mounds but so far the GSA is digging in its heals.

Chad Hutson, a GSA spokesman, claimed that if the artwork were a painting or statuary it could be returned to the government but in this case the art is immobile and therefore its return is impossible:

“The buyer of the Wenatchee Federal Building in 2017 agreed to be responsible for the protection and maintenance of the art ‘Untitled’ (earthwork with concrete retaining wall) on the property,” Hutson wrote in an email. “The deed further requires that should the purchaser sell the property, the new buyer must adhere to the artwork preservation covenants”

So that is presently the status quo of the situation. The $19,000 gift that keeps on giving. Had this mound of dirt simply been “a mound of dirt” it could have been bulldozed without much of a thought. But since it was a “work of art” it is part of the deed and hallowed ground.

I have to wonder what the penalty would be if the mound was simply removed. Would there be some form of payment required as to actual value? Could it be disassembled, poured into a dump truck and hauled to the GSA with instructions on how to put it back together? Maybe ANTIFA could tear it down as being racist and the city could file an insurance claim. Either way the story of Untitled (earthwork with concrete retaining wall) symbolizes more than just some mysterious mounds that are obviously man-made. It is the story of an art project sold to uninformed bureaucrats and the decades long consequences to their decisions. Well, at least it offered an artist the ability to hit pay dirt on the federal dime.

You have to admit, it takes a lot of chutzpah to sell a pile of dirt for twenty grand and do so in such a way the government can’t get rid of it: Kind of antithetical to Banski’s “Girl With Balloon”.

By Darren Smith

Photo credit Don Seabrook, Wenatchee World.

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

67 thoughts on “Public Art Or Public Nuisance? Mound Of Dirt Art That Won’t Go Away”

  1. I live in Wenatchee. This is beyond an “eye-sore”. Karen is right. The majority of the tax payers in Wenatchee do not support keeping piles of dirt as art.

    1. It might be stuck in the Word Mess filter. Sometimes if I hit the back button, my unpublished comment will show up. If I try to repost it, it won’t go through because it is verbatim. However, if I change a word or two, and copy it, I can get out of the blog, go back in, and post. That doesn’t always work, though.

  2. The new art museum doesn’t have an attached piece of “public art” but maybe the entire structure qualifies.

    When the next door Todd Hall suffered some remodeling the “public art” in the plaza was destroyed.

    There are two new buildings down the hill where I cannot place any “public art”. The new police station has none, unless the flagpole counts.

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