A Farewell to Art

Frank Stella created a sculptural masterpiece for Miami's waterfront, but you'll probably never see it here

Frank Stella'sdesign for a bandshell to be erected adjacent to the American Airlines Arenawas inspired by a cheap beach hat the internationally acclaimed artist saw in Rio de Janeiro: a flat piece of foam with spirals cut into it, allowing it to expand when pulled down over the head. But the sculptural structure on Biscayne Bay was not intended as innocuous whimsy; it would serve as a signature piece of public art that would help inaugurate a reborn downtown where aesthetic beauty would reign and the arts thrive.

Instead it appears Miami will never see the fantastically whorled creation. Last week trustees of the Miami-Dade Art in Public Placesprogram, which commissioned Stella in 1998 to design and build the bandshell, voted to terminate the artist's contract after the project became hobbled by cost overruns and delays.

"We're having a little problem with that structure," understates Ivan Rodriguez, executive director of Art in Public Places. "The sculpture's costs have more than doubled, and we don't have the funds to do it. The trust does not want to raise extra funds. Mr. Stella knew about this for more than a year but failed to get in touch with us. The trust has instructed me to terminate the contract."

Stella's Manhattan attorney, Neale Albert, responds that the artist is dismayed the city will not lay claim to the work as he originally envisioned. "Mr. Stella will return the money to the county and sell the bandshell for much more," Albert says. "In effect he was doing this for cost. Now some very lucky person is going to buy one of the most unique pieces of art in the world. It's just a shame it's not going to be Miami."

Rodriguez sounds sincerely disappointed reporting this news, and it's easy to see why. Stella's design, flowing and organic, was garnering praise the world over. Not only would the bandshell put downtown Miami in the spotlight of the international art scene, it also would mark an important breakthrough for one of the most influential artists of the late Twentieth Century. Art critics writing about the bandshell note that it represented an evolution for Stella. He first made his mark in the Fifties and Sixties, with abstract paintings of austere black canvases with white pinstripes and later, geometric patterns, helping to usher in the Minimalist movement. From there his work transmuted into canvases with textured relief and ultimately into sculpture, such as 1986's 35-foot-high Cone and Pillar piece, mounted on the side of a Manhattan office building. The Miami bandshell was to be his architectural debut. "A forthcoming bandshell in Miami highlights the sculptural inventiveness that Frank Stella, once a champion of the flat picture plane, has recently brought to bear on public architecture," the art critic Franz Schulze wrote in the June 2000 issue of Art in America.

Stella's interest in architectural works and public projects (as opposed to gallery installations) developed over most of the last decade but with mixed results, Schulze noted. In 1991 the Groningen Museum in the Netherlands commissioned Stella to create a pavilion. According to Schulze, Stella's "original ground plan was based on the shapes of two asymmetrical leaves." But the artist later changed the design substantially, "at which point he fell into disagreement with the Dutch client and lost the commission." Indeed many of Stella's grand public projects failed to materialize for one reason or another. The 1992 Desert Museum intended for Israel was never built. Officials in Dresden, Germany, turned down his plans for a public park in the early Nineties.

So it was a fortuitous convergence of interests that brought together 64-year-old Stella and the county's Art in Public Places (APP) program, which receives its funding from a 1.5 percent tax on all county building projects. APP's board of trustees, who are appointed by the county commission, fashioned a $1.45 million contract for the bandshell, from start to finish. Its bayside location by the American Airlines Arena, incidentally, originally was reserved for a public soccer field, as promised by Miami Heat owner Micky Arison five years ago. Later Arison and the county reneged on that promise and planned shops and a small amphitheater for the spot. The bandshell, a 35-foot-tall steel structure, would anchor the amphitheater.

But even critics of the bait and switch regarding the soccer field seem disheartened by the fate of Stella's bandshell. "That was going to be a major piece of art," groans Miami attorney Dan Paul, a veteran parks advocate who vociferously opposed the construction and public financing of the arena. "I think it's an outrage that Art in Public Places is not going to put a significant piece of art there now."

Certainly the city's art community was buzzing at the news that one of the United States' most prominent artists would be creating an important piece for downtown. North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art mounted a retrospective of Stella's work from the past decade titled "Frank Stella at 2000: Changing the Rules," which ran from December 1999 to March 2000. The show included a twelve-foot-tall scale model of the bandshell, which subsequently traveled to galleries in New York and Chicago, where it drew rave reviews.

But creating the actual structure proved to be extremely complicated. According to APP's Ivan Rodriguez, Stella took his design to a foundry in Rhode Island, where he spent $670,000, only to be so dissatisfied with the craftsmanship there he rejected the work. Stella then turned to a foundry in Cherbourg, France, that met his exacting standards. In addition to the false start at the Rhode Island foundry, the design plans changed when a structural engineer advised Stella that, in order to withstand hurricane-force winds, the amount of steel in the structure needed to be increased from 30 tons to 40 tons. As a result the cost of the project soared to more than three million dollars. "Since June of 1999 he knew about the increase of steel," Rodriguez says. "But he didn't get in touch with us until December 2000."

Rodriguez sighs: "The trust is very upset. They think he's in default of his contract."

To date APP has paid Stella $1.1 million. "We don't know what course of action we will be taking," offers Rodriguez. "He had indicated he would buy the piece from us. But for that to happen, he needs to sell it first. He also indicated he would build a half-scale structure for the money in the contract. But the Art in Public Places trust was not sympathetic to that idea." As for securing the extra money through fundraisers, Rodriguez says the trust quickly scrapped that notion. "We're a public entity," he says, "we're not a private fundraising organization."

Rodriguez continues: "[Stella's] position is he cannot set a precedent that when a work of art costs more than originally intended, he has to eat it. But our position is we cannot set a precedent where we contract a piece and then agree to pay more than double just because the artist asks us to. But right now it's not an adversarial relationship whatsoever. We want to try and resolve it amicably."

So does Stella's attorney Neale Albert, who holds out hope that a wealthy patron could rescue the artwork. "If somebody steps forward, it's still possible," he says.

The bandshell, meanwhile, is completed and sits at the Cherbourg foundry. Rodriguez visited it recently. "It's magnificent," he swoons. "It really takes your breath away. It's huge, and the way the steel bends and flows, it gives a very airy feeling. You don't realize the strength. It truly would have been a signature piece for Miami."

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