Changing Skyline: Without review, NJ DEP plans to dump a commissioned work of art

Kathy Giordano , who works in the Department of Environmental Protection, says of the plaza there: "It's been our greeting for 30 years." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

It's rare for anyone to say something nice about a government bureaucracy, never mind devote a work of art to its accomplishments. That alone makes Athena Tacha's Green Acres sculpture at the Trenton headquarters of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection something special.

Tacha designed the piece for the DEP's outdoor courtyard after winning a state-run competition in 1985 and named it after the well-regarded Green Acres land conservation program. Part sculpture, part plaza, it provides a quiet spot where employees can sit and escape the daily grind of enforcing regulations that protect the state's air, water, and land. At ground level, Green Acres' tiers of creamy brick recall the lapping waves of the Jersey Shore. Seen from the offices above, the pinwheeling forms suggest both an unfurling flower and the outline of a bird, a department emblem.

And how has New Jersey's DEP responded to Tacha's valentine? First it allowed Green Acres to crumble. Now it plans to cart off the remains to a landfill.

Such cavalier treatment of a work by an important artist would be disturbing under any circumstances, but Green Acres was among the first pieces commissioned under New Jersey's 1978 Arts Inclusion Act, modeled on Philadelphia's groundbreaking Percent for Art program. The idea of the program was to offset the harshness of government buildings - for the public and employees alike - with moments of creativity.

For all that history, the decision to ditch Tacha's sculpture was made without any formal review of its artistic value, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna acknowledged. In most public art programs, the process for removing works is just as rigorous as the one for selecting them, says Susan M. Davis who ran the percent-for-art program at Philadelphia's Redevelopment Authority for many years. "Wanting something different is not a good reason" to destroy an artwork, she points out.

Since the DEP spent $400,000 to acquire Tacha's sculpture for its East State Street building, her reputation has soared. Her work has been the subject of monographs and international exhibitions. She went on to complete Baldwin Park on Philadelphia's Callowhill Street in 1992, one of the first parks in the United States conceived as a public art project.

Tacha says she still considers Green Acres among her best. Employees seem to enjoy it, too. After the state stopped maintaining the shrubs, one staffer told me during a visit last week, a small group took it upon themselves to plant the bare dirt with annuals.

The neglect and abandonment of Tacha's site-specific work is, sadly, an all-too-common story, says Charles Birnbaum, who founded the Cultural Landscape Foundation to promote the idea that parks, plazas, and other man-made landscapes are art. As little respect as building architecture gets, landscape architecture receives even less.

While site-specific works, like Green Acres, are often greeted with great fanfare when they're new, they quickly become, well, just part of the landscape. Maintenance stops, and people stop thinking of them as the creation of an individual hand.

That was evident in the April 18 letter officially informing Tacha of the planned demolition. Guy C. Bocage, deputy director of New Jersey's treasury department, which manages state buildings, explained that the agency is demolishing Green Acres because its deteriorating bricks and chipped tile "impedes safe and expeditious evacuation of the building."

There is no doubt that Green Acres is in poor condition, despite receiving a $30,000 cleanup in 2004. But watching DEP employees come and go for over an hour last week, I saw no evidence that Green Acres impeded anything or was unsafe. Because Tacha located the seating at the sculpture's edges, and kept the center space clear, the artwork achieves a balance between respite and movement. There are highways in worse condition and we don't give up on those.

Over the years, Tacha, now 76, says she sent the DEP several letters pointing out the deterioration, in the hope it would undertake a serious restoration. "They never answered," she says.

Instead, arguing there was no state money for repairs, the agency opted for demolition. In an initial interview, the DEP's Hajna told me it was a Treasury Department decision. But Treasury Department spokesman William Quinn referred me back to the DEP.

Hajna explained in a subsequent interview that the DEP wants to replace Green Acres with a more eco-friendly plaza design that would include shade trees and porous paving that allows rainwater to drain more efficiently. The DEP plans to pay for the rain gardens with a $1 million grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Unlike Green Acres, the rain garden is being designed by an engineer.

There is nothing wrong with the DEP's making its property more sustainable. But why start with the little plaza when its offices are surrounded by sprawling parking lots paved with the usual impervious asphalt?

The removal of the landmark sculpture is so troubling that both New Jersey ArtPride, an advocacy group, and the state chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects recently joined the Cultural Landscape Foundation in sending protest letters to the DEP and Treasury Department.

The one agency that has been oddly silent on the controversy is the New Jersey Council on the Arts, which administers the Arts Inclusion program. The council oversees the selection of the state's public art collection, but thanks to a weakness in the 1978 legislation, it has no oversight for maintenance or removal. That doesn't stop it from raising its voice in protest.

Barring a change of heart by the state, Hajna says he expects Green Acres to be demolished in early 2013. In the name of sustainability, the DEP will sacrifice not just a work of art, but a piece of the state's history.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, or @ingasaffron.