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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The bright orange steel sculpture that has stood outside the Fort Wayne Museum of Art for 28 years now lies in disarray after a driver drove his truck into it in June. The museum's insurance will pay for repairs – like it or not.

Piece of art or hunk of junk?

City residents weigh in on plans to repair museum's sculpture

Courtesy photo
The Helmholtz sculpture was created by Mark di Suvero, an abstract expressionist sculptor, who plans to repair it.

Fort Wayne resident Nick Giant summarized his opinion regarding the Fort Wayne Museum of Art's Helmholtz sculpture in one sentence: "Finally someone hit that hunk of junk in front of the art museum."

Giant's thoughts were published in a letter to the editor printed in The Journal Gazette on June 21.

The red-orange stainless steel sculpture has been an abstract piece of public art located downtown on the Arts Campus since 1985 – that is, until a vehicle crashed into it in June, causing the steel beams to topple into a large pile.

"The city should take this as an opportunity to get rid of that total eyesore," wrote Giant, 33. "It makes Fort Wayne look worse."

Since it was announced that it may take nearly $300,000 to repair the sculpture, museum executive director Charles Shepard has heard it all from upset residents. However, the biggest misunderstanding, he says, is that somehow the public will be responsible for the repair.

"It's not going to cost the city or taxpayer anything," Shepard says. "It's all private money, it's all insurance money. That is probably what's more frustrating than anything else – people's lack of understanding that anything at the museum, any object, has always come from private funds. There's no public money involved."

While money may be the primary complaint, it seems a majority of readers are not particularly fond of the sculpture. At least, not enough to see it resurrected.

What followed Nick Giant's initial letter was a flurry of letters from readers who seconded his opinion. Deborah Moore of Monroeville wrote that it was the first time she "rejoiced at the news of an alleged drunk driving accident," and Fort Wayne resident Tilli Horsley thought it would be better to use the mangled steel and make park benches. Some readers want it gone; while others say leave it in disarray.

After all, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Richard Kolkman Jr. of Fort Wayne wrote.

"I'm not surprised (by all the responses), especially in Fort Wayne," Giant says. "They gripe about everything, and I thought that this was something that was really ridiculous."

Although a majority of letters shared Giant's views, Cheryl Roberts of Fort Wayne asked a fair question in her letter: "If a drunk driver crashed into your yard and damaged your property, wouldn't you want it repaired, replaced or to receive recompense for the damages if it couldn't be repaired?"

It was just part of the age-old debate of what is "art."

Interpreting art

Is it difficult to appreciate what is considered a fine piece of abstract art if a majority of people have only considered it, as Giant says, "a hunk of junk?"

"I think that there's really a lot of information about Mark di Suvero and his work," Shepard says. "That's not to say we couldn't do more. Now that we understand that a lot of people don't understand it, the museum might work harder to communicate what it's about – that said, it doesn't mean that anyone is going to like it any better."

The Helmholtz was created by di Suvero, an American artist who immigrated to the U.S. from China at 8 years of age. He received his B.A. in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. A pioneer in the use of steel, di Suvero is a well-known figure in abstract expressionist art.

His work can be found in more than 100 museums and public collections; he is the first living artist to exhibit in Le Jardin de Tuileries and Les Esplanades des Invalides in Paris and at Millennium Park in Chicago.

Di Suvero was commissioned by Rea Magnet Wire Co. in 1983 to create a stainless-steel piece to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary in Fort Wayne. The sculpture was named after 19th century German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, significant in the development of physics and philosophy of science.

The artist has declined to comment on the damaged sculpture.

Shepard says it's important for the museum to continue its education on modern art and even earlier periods in order to foster a more positive outlook on the interpretation of art. He says that just because people don't understand every art piece, doesn't mean they should reject objects as art.

"If I went to the National Museum of Art, and I saw something on the lawn that I didn't comprehend whatsoever, I would think that someone at the National Museum of Art knows what should be there or not. I would start with a basic respect because the museum put it there," he says. "People with countless years of experience put up this sculpture – so some credit is due there."

George Alatza of Fort Wayne, who wrote a letter stating that the sculpture was more of a welding display of steel I-beams, says it is the artist's responsibility to communicate his vision.

He says the sculpture reminds him of his art school days when one of his professors tried to analyze Jackson Pollack's drip painting technique in the late '40s. Alatza says all he saw was scribbles.

"I've been studying art for years. (Helmholtz) doesn't represent art in a normal people's mind," he says. "Anything that's a craft you can call art, but it doesn't represent the art museum in my mind."

Alatza, 87, spent 40 years marketing paint colors for Colwell Industries before the company moved from Fort Wayne to Kendallville – he now uses his free time for photography. A formally trained artist, Alatza moved from Anderson to study at the Fort Wayne Art School before World War II, and he continued his studies in art institutions located in Cincinnati and Chicago after the war. Before moving into the marketing industry, he was an instructor at a former art school in New Orleans.

Alatza says modern or abstract art often doesn't communicate an artist's vision, which leads to confusion for the viewers. He says for art to be appreciated, it needs to be accessible.

"An artist is somebody with an exceptional talent to see and understand, and then by training, learn a craft to present what he sees to other people, whether it's through music, writing, or through visual art. They show people the beauty in the world they don't have time to see," he says.

"The word is communication. When the artist has something to say, the work should communicate it, especially if he is a visual artist. He shouldn't need text to tell you what he just did. Interpretation is great, but an artist is a communicator – he's an expert at it."

Unexpected repairs

For 28 years, the Helmholtz, currently on the west side of the Arts Campus, stood unperturbed.

Intentionally placed far from Main Street, the sculpture had never been bolted down. Because it weighs 8 to 10 tons, Shepard says the planners didn't think it needed to be.

"No one ever calculated that someone would be able to knock it down," he says.

But in the early morning of June 16, police reports say 23-year-old Colton Adamonis lost control of his truck as he crossed Main Street and struck the sculpture with so much force that it toppled on one side. Shepard says the fact that the unbolted sculpture absorbed the blow possibly saved Adamonis' life. He was arrested and police say he was intoxicated at the time of the crash.

"If the sculpture hadn't moved, it would have been more like running into an oak tree," he says. "We're happy that the driver wasn't (more) hurt as he was."

Shepard says he called di Suvero the day of the crash to let him know of the damages. He says that after the initial shock wore off, the 79-year-old artist seemed hopeful about the repairs for the piece.

"Anytime anybody has spent a considerable amount of time constructing something, it hurts when it gets wrecked," Shepard says. "It hurts your feelings when it breaks, but he is a very compassionate individual. He immediately expressed his relief that no one was hurt, that the driver wasn't injured."

Shepard says the museum is working out the logistics of how to repair the sculpture during the fall or winter in preparation for a reinstallation by next spring or summer. This would include the construction of retention elements to protect the sculpture.

The museum dismantled the sculpture last week and sent it to a secure location before it is shipped to the artist's studio in California.

"The best restoration might be to ship it directly to his studio, which is a large space geared to making things on this scale," Shepard says. "That's where all your tools are and where your help is. It's your home base. I would think it's probably preferable."

Shepard says the museum will need di Suvero's team to confirm the timeline, the people involved and the pieces of steel needed before they can calculate the actual cost.

So far, the museum has spent close to $2,000 hiring an engineer to examine the steel pieces and fencing for the area. Shepard says his conservative estimate for repairs is $100,000 to $200,000. He says the museum's insurance company, Huntington T. Block Agency Inc., is in talks with the driver's insurance company.

"Everything has been done in a way that when you're finally done, you have kept a running tab of every expense. Our insurance company will go to the fellow's insurance company, and those companies will sort out what the total bill will be."

Due to the museum's insurance policy, any damaged object that is deemed repairable must be repaired. Shepard says it was surprising to hear some of the residents' resistance to the idea of repairing a piece of art that people pass by every day.

"Di Suvero is probably one of the most famous and well-regarded artists living today, and we're so proud. It should make Fort Wayne proud," Shepard says.

"We have a very good basketball team and baseball team, and there are people who don't like basketball or baseball, but are we proud of those teams? Sure, we are. If something happened to (Parkview Field), I think we would all want them to rebuild it – even if we're not baseball fans.

"I would be happy if more people learned to love it (the Helmholtz), but I'm not sure that's guaranteed. It sure would be nice if they did."


This story has been edited to reflect the following correction:

Because of an editing error, the name of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art's Helmholtz sculpture was misspelled in a photo caption on Page 1D of today's preprinted Living section.

In the same story, it was incorrectly reported when the damaged sculpture would be dismantled. It was dismantled Friday.