Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A Kansas City artist wants to swap out a famous sculpture for a run-down home at the city's major museum.
Troost Avenue is notable as a north–south street that zips through most of Kansas City. It's notorious, though, as a bright line that divides the city racially, a border that has stood for hundreds of years. A visitor in Kansas City quickly comes to appreciate that Troost is more metaphor than motorway.
The ignominious history of Troost Avenue dates back to the time of Benoist Troost, one of the city's founding fathers, a Dutchman who maintained a massive slave plantation in the area just east of what would become the major thoroughfare. Further, even: Troost was once an Osage Nation hunting path and canoe trail, according to The Kansas City Star.
Troost is the subject of a lot of discussion, a lot of angst, and a lot of art in Kansas City. City of Fountains, a project proposed by A. Bitterman, an artist who resides in Kansas City, would put up a permanent marker for that division. The artist proposes a swap: An exchange of one of the prized cultural treasures just west of Troost for one of the symbols of despair to be found east of the dividing line.
Specifically, A. Bitterman would shift to the east Henry Moore's Sheep Piece (1971–72), a public sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, while a vacant house would take up pride of place on the museum grounds, adjacent to the world-famous Shuttlecocks by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
A. Bitterman's proposal isn't new: The artist put it out there in 2011. But it stands up as one of the better examples of conceptual art that acts as social and political criticism, something sorely lacking from museum programming today. There's no need for the museum to execute his proposal, in one sense. Here the mere observation resonates as much as the artwork.
"By radically altering context through a simple exchange, a condemned house from a forgotten landscape becomes a thing of aching beauty and a catalyst for despair, while a prized artifact from an idyllic landscape becomes a portal, so that in each case a new narrative is made readily available," reads the pitch for the project, which takes the form of a picture postcard.
At least one other artist has done A. Bitterman one better. Since 1993, Rick Lowe has been buying, restoring, and remaking dilapidated homes in Houston's Third Ward. Project Row Houses, a longterm art-slash-housing project that Lowe describes as "social sculpture," has expanded to cover some 70 buildings over six blocks. As a symbolic work, City of Fountains is closer in spirit to Mel Chin's Safehouse in New Orleans, a sculptural headquarters for the artist's Operation Paydirt initiative to strip lead from the soil across New Orleans neighborhoods.
The Nelson-Atkins has yet to take up A. Bitterman on his proposal. To be expected. Although it wouldn't be entirely out of hand for the museum to say yes. In 2013, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit mounted Mobile Homestead—a full-scale replica of the mobile home in which Mike Kelley, the late artist, grew up—without a clear mandate for what to do with the thing. At present, Mobile Homestead is playing host to a "contemporary quilt-making workshop," with guest lectures and tutorials by artists and open hours for Detroit residents.
City of Fountains confronts the museum's value to Kansas City—the whole city. It tackles headlong the justice of siting a cultural treasury that holds so much so close to a neighborhood that bears so little. The piece asks viewers on both sides of the Troost whom the museum serves. City of Fountains elevates the value of a house, an asset determined by the housing market, against the value of a sculpture, a commodity manufactured by the art market. Shouldn't these things be a lot closer in worth than they are?
UPDATE (5/1/15): In an email obtained by CityLab, the Artists Rights Society has asked A. Bitterman to stop using images of Henry Moore's Sheep Piece in his own work. ARS represents the intellectual property rights of the Henry Moore Foundation, the April 30 email says, noting that "the Moore Foundation has complained that such unauthorized use is in violation of their copyrights in the work of art."
Adds the ARS, "We respectfully ask that you discontinue this use of Henry Moore’s sculpture."