Outside the former federal building and new Wenatchee City Hall is a piece of art made out of mounds of dirt. In official federal records it’s called “Untitled: Earthwork with concrete retaining wall.”
Laramie, Wyoming, artist Stan Dolega was paid $19,000 in 1981 to create the piece and said he envisioned a sort of abstract representation of the rolling hills of the area when seen from street level and from above.
The city of Wenatchee has a different vision for that space: a parking lot.
But the federal General Services Administration stepped in and put a halt to those plans, saying when LocalTel bought the former federal building it did so with the requirement the artwork must be preserved. And when LocalTel sold part of the building to the city, the requirement went with it.
Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz said he had hoped an alternative agreement could be reached.
“We knew that under the federal rules that if you remove artwork you need to replace artwork some other place,” Kuntz said. “We thought that would be a process we would start working through and eventually end up with some sort of agreement with the federal government. … Apparently that did not go well with our folks at GSA.”
A nationally popular website run by legal scholar and commentator Jonathan Turley picked up on the story and published a piece titled “Public Art Or Public Nuisance? Mound Of Dirt That Won’t Go Away.”
The article ends with the words “You have to admit, it takes a lot of chutzpah to sell a pile of dirt for twenty grand and do so in such a way the government can’t get rid of it: Kind of antithetical to Banski’s “Girl With Balloon.”
Back in Wyoming, artist Dolega was told by a Facebook friend from Wenatchee about his artwork being a topic of discussion, 38 years after he’d made it. Looking to learn more, Dolega quickly found the critical article online. When he read it and the scathing comments that followed, it stung.
“To my way of thinking (the article) was amazingly hostile to the piece itself and, of course, indirectly that means to me because I made it,” Dolega said.
“I was really sort of taken aback by the whole thing, that there could literally be hatred of an artwork in Wenatchee.”
Dolega said he was on a list of national artists in 1981 that the National Endowment for the Arts supplied to other federal agencies for art projects. He was approached by the GSA to do the work and gladly accepted.
He said he spent two months in Wenatchee working on the mounds project, which he calls “Zero and One.” He hired local contractors to help with the concrete wall and deliveries of dirt and stayed in a local motel. He said he probably spent half of what he was paid in commission in Wenatchee.
Dolega, over the years, has created numerous large public art projects using different materials. But in 1981, he was one of the better-known “earthwork” artists.
“The piece was actually intended to be an abstraction of the Western landscape and the retaining wall, which truncates the front of the berm that’s closest to the sidewalk to match the building itself.
Very little earthwork art remains. And Wenatchee could take advantage of that with his piece, Dolega said.
“It could be promoted as something important in the history of earthworks sculpture. You could put it on your list of 10 most important things to see when you’re a tourist in Wenatchee, Washington.”
Mayor Kuntz, instead of developing a tourism strategy around the mounds, has not given up on the idea of a parking lot.
“My office is now on the third floor of the federal building on that exact corner, so if I look out the window, I look right down on top of the artwork, the mounds, he said. “I’m not an art person, I understand sculptures, I understand that we try to make the city beautiful and I really think we’ve done a great job of art on the avenues. … I’m absolutely about trying to make it look as nice as possible but I think there’s times when you go, does that really make sense to have mounds of grass become artwork?”