When Miami Beach installed Tempest in Collins Park in 2010, the city's website gushed that Brian Tolle's giant sculpture was "a shimmering blue-green expanse which appears to have been carved from the sea, frozen in space and time, in the form of a swirling celestial maze." The website even encouraged people to interact with the sculpture: "Visitors are free to wander through the waves, looking as though they are bobbing in the surf or frolicking in a pool."
Perhaps "frolicking" was a poor choice of words.
According to Tolle, the city proceeded to let bums, punks, and -- worst of all -- Segway-riding tourists ruin his $400,000 sculpture. And when he complained, the city secretly dismantled his creation.
"The piece was taken away during the darkness of the night. I don't even know where it is," the artist says. "They have violated my rights."
The city, though, says Tolle is to blame for the design of the piece. "There were defects and deficiencies with the fabrication and installation of the artwork, which have not been addressed by the artist," says Nannette Rodriguez, a Miami Beach spokeswoman.
Tolle is best known for his Irish Hunger Memorial, which features a rebuilt Irish cottage suspended above street level in downtown Manhattan. He says he was honored when Miami Beach asked him to create a permanent sculpture for Collins Park.
He spent months designing the spiral sculpture and then making sure its materials would stand up to South Beach weather. He covered quarter-inch aluminum sheets with a special epoxy powder to prevent rust and used thousands of stainless-steel screws and neoprene washers to hold it together. But soon after the piece was finally installed, Tolle spotted black streaks all over its white walls.
"I sat there one morning watching to see what was causing it," he says. "Sure enough, a tour of Segways came along, and one by one, they crashed into the interior and permanently marred the piece." When Tolle complained, the city posted a cop to watch the sculpture.
"He spent a month there and reported back: 'We cannot protect this piece,' " Tolle claims. "It's hard for me to believe that in Collins Park, in the most affluent part of Miami Beach, that this piece couldn't be maintained."
Things got worse. The next time Tolle visited, he found his piece covered in trash and graffiti. Bums had been sleeping inside the sculpture, and it reeked of feces. Tempest had been transformed into a shit storm. "It was just completely neglected in every way," he says.
When he complained again, city officials blamed everything on him, Tolle says. They even asked him to pay $10,000 to refurbish it, arguing that because they had never issued an "official letter of acceptance" for the sculpture, it was still technically his.
"It's like buying a car and taking it back to the dealership the next day and saying the paint is failing because someone else scratched it," he says.
Finally, this past March, the sculpture disappeared. Tolle says he was never notified despite terms in his contract stipulating he be informed ahead of time and allowed to supervise its removal.
"Was it handled like an important work of art or just handled like trash?" he wonders. "I have no idea what they might have broken." Worst of all, Tolle says, he has no clue where his creation is now. It's an embarrassment for him and an affront to taxpayers, who paid for the piece, he says.
Tolle isn't the only artist upset with Miami Beach. Last year, Tobias Rehberger complained that his five-story South Pointe sculpture, Obstinate Lighthouse, had been turned into a pissing post for perros in a nearby dog park.
The two complaints are surprising considering Miami Beach's reputation as an art mecca. The island is home to a handful of museums, as well as Art Basel and many of its satellite fairs.
But Rodriguez, the city spokeswoman, says Miami Beach "continues to explore all of its legal rights" in regards to the work.
"I have never dealt with a city that is so antagonistic," Tolle says. "A city that prides itself on its relationship with the art community should not treat artists this way."
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The sculptor says he's tired of fighting the city, which has infinitely more resources. So
he's taking his case to the court of public opinion in the hope that his sculpture will be taken out of a warehouse and displayed -- somewhere.
"At the end of the day, I think it's an amazing piece, and I want it to find a local home," he says. "It's made for Miami. It just needs to be cared for."