Gov. Christie is not known as a connoisseur of fine art, but days before leaving for the GOP convention, his office quietly intervened to stop the state environmental agency from carrying out the controversial demolition of a groundbreaking work of public art.
The action ensures that Athena Tacha's 1985 spiraling, place-specific sculpture, Green Acres, will remain a focal point of the plaza at the Department of Environmental Protection headquarters on East State Street in Trenton.
The planned 2013 demolition of Green Acres became an art world cause célèbre this summer after the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group, chastened the DEP for overlooking the work's pedigree and launched an online petition calling for its preservation. The DEP decision was criticized in numerous publications, including The Inquirer and the Huffington Post.
Tacha, reached by telephone Monday, said she learned "the wonderful news" last week when she received an e-mail, and then a telephone call, from Amy Cradic, a Christie policy adviser. "We talked and she said the governor had decided to save the work," Tacha recounted.
A DEP spokesman confirmed that Tacha's large outdoor sculpture, which includes seating areas and greenery, and is used as a lunchtime getaway by DEP employees, would not be removed from the agency's courtyard. He gave no reason for the change of heart.
The spokesman, Larry Ragonese, did, however, seek to play down Christie's role in reversing the demolition order. "It was a decision made by all parties after much discussion," Ragonese said. "We decided not to demolish and will be assessing the future of the plaza, especially the safety issues. I can't say any more."
A Christie spokesman, Sean Conner, did not return phone calls.
Cradic, who was reached on her cellphone, also declined to discuss her role in the matter. In a conciliatory Aug. 23 e-mail to Tacha, she wrote: "I would like to speak with you at your convenience about your sculpture, which will not be removed."
Demolishing Green Acres would have almost certainly cast New Jersey in an unflattering light in the art world. Tacha, who now lives in Washington, is considered a pivotal figure in the land-art movement, which fuses sculpture and landscape forms into parklike settings, and Green Acres is probably her best-known work. Green Acres was also among the first pieces to be commissioned under New Jersey's Arts Inclusion Act, which was adopted in 1978, and its form is based on the DEP logo.
"My understanding is that [the governor's office] didn't really know what was going on" with Green Acres, said Charles Birnbaum, who runs the Cultural Landscape Foundation. He said he was extremely pleased by the reprieve for the sculpture.
Although Green Acres had been featured in several histories of public art, DEP administrators apparently knew little about its history when they announced in April that it was being removed from the plaza. Another DEP spokesman, Larry Hajna, acknowledged in an interview that the agency never undertook a review of its artistic merit.
The decision to remove the sculpture - originally acquired for $400,000 - was made after the agency received a $1 million federal grant to repave the plaza with porous tiles, part of an effort to demonstrate the latest techniques for handling runoff from rainstorms. Several state arts groups, including the state chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, sent letters to the DEP questioning its action.
Despite receiving a $30,000 cleanup in 2004, the sculpture had been poorly maintained in recent years. Many of its creamy bricks, which recall the lapping waves of the Jersey Shore, are cracked and some of the custom-made plaza tiles have been replaced with asphalt.
At some point, the state also stopped refreshing the greenery in the planters. This year a group of employees took up a collection to buy flowers and planted them during their lunch hour. Even so, the seating area looks forlorn.
In contrast, Tasha's site-specific sculpture in Philadelphia, Matthias Baldwin Park at 19th and Callowhill Streets, has matured into a lush green space thanks to the care of a neighborhood friends group led by James Fennell.
While Christie's office has signaled its commitment to keeping Green Acres from a landfill, it has not said whether it will pay for a badly needed renovation. Birnbaum, who said the sculpture is eligible for listing on the National Register, suggested that the state should reach out to local landscape architects for advice and help.
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ingasaffron.