The city of Durango has long made facilitating and supporting public art a priority. Displays of local and far-away talent grace the city’s sidewalks, the Animas River Trail and other public spaces, and there is no question that the arts figure prominently in the city’s vision of quality of life. It was within this context that local artists Jeff Madeen and Elizabeth Somers received permission to install their project on a city bridge spanning the Animas River.
When the project did not appear as the city expected it, though, the reaction could leave the uninformed observer with a different impression. And considered in relation to the city’s response to the recent spill that sent 300,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Animas River, Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz’s hasty decision to remove much of the installation could be seen as a disproportionate response.
Madeen and Somers installed their “Bridging Consciousness” piece on the pedestrian bridge at Rivergate on July 22. The piece was designed to raise awareness of homelessness in Durango, and included a sign reading: “If you lived under here you’d be home now,” as well as a curtain of CDs and several other elements that dangled above the river.
It was those latter elements that caused the city’s agitation, and Metz, citing safety concerns for river users – as well as those elements’ divergence from the original proposal – ordered the piece removed. Immediately. When Metz could not reach Madeen, police were sent to do the work.
While safety should certainly be paramount to all city decisions, the notion that Madeen’s and Somers’ piece was a threat to anyone’s well-being is a bit of a stretch. The elements of concern were in the river’s path, but CDs on a string do not a hazard make, as witnessed by the many rafters who intentionally routed their boats through the artwork.
What seems to be the larger issue is the difference between what was proposed and what was actually displayed. And in that regard the artists were wrong. The city should know what will be displayed on public property and hold artists to their commitments. Madeen said that he would have made requested modifications had he been given the chance. It would have been better had the piece conformed to what had been agreed to.
Nonetheless, Metz’s crackdown on the bridge art seems a bit overdone both in its immediacy and its severity, particularly when the sewage leak – a real safety concern – was met with far more latitude in terms of how to protect the public. No signage warning of the spill was installed until the San Juan Basin Health Department issued a health warning. City manager Ron LeBlanc defended that decision, citing concern about not unduly alarming residents and river-related businesses without documentation of the health risks.
It seems he could have erred on the side of providing information. And so could have Metz.
Instead of removing the art, the city would have been more measured in its response to its concerns about safety if it had given the artists the opportunity to modify the installation to address those concerns.
Alternately, the city could have done what it failed to do during the sewage spill: place signs warning river users of upcoming art, or in the case of the former incident, the existence of sewage. Armed with that information, river users could then have decided for themselves whether to proceed. That seems a more reasonable approach to looking out for public safety – whether placed at risk by sewage or art.