Graffiti mecca 5Pointz was whitewashed in November by the property owner in preparation of the building’s demolition. Photo credit: Dan Nguyen

For two decades the warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, known as 5Pointz stood as an unofficial museum of graffiti art. Jerry Wolkoff, the building’s owner, was considered an ally of graffiti artists for offering it up as a free canvas in the ‘90s – but that ended in 2010, when an artist was injured on site and the city fined Wolkoff for several building violations. No legal protections had ever been secured for the artwork, and despite an attempt to win landmark status and a last-minute call to “Save 5Pointz” by street art superstar Banksy, a judge ruled on November 12 that Wolkoff had the right to tear the complex down. Two residential high-rises will be built in its place. 

With the rise in Percent for Art programs around the country, questions of ownership, responsibility, and control over public art remain critical. Increasingly, commissioners of public art attempt to pre-empt these problems by hiring public arts advisors and engaging communities in the selection process, even inviting them into the creative conversation with the artist. But public art is a complicated and varied medium that includes a broad spectrum of artistic styles and approaches – from the most familiar bronze figural monuments to massive mid-century abstract sculptures, site-specific installations, and new media forms.

The challenges to long-term success—and the trickiness of defining that—are formidable, even for site owners and artists who go in with a clear-eyed, thoughtful process. Though art consultants and community dialogue help in the conscientious placement and positive reception of public work, they do not always guarantee the art will remain undisturbed. This post explores some of the ways public art can go awry – and how artists can try to protect their work.

Threatening Signs

A variety of factors can lead to the removal and scrapping of public art, including neighborhood development, changes in building ownership, dilapidation due to poor maintenance, and shifts in demographics or public sentiment. In the case of 5Pointz, the matter involved real estate development and a changing community. The area of Queens where the warehouse resides has seen major increases in property values resulting from gentrification. The building owner wanted to capitalize on the property, which has sat empty—with the exception of its use by graffiti artists—since the incident in 2010. Paradoxically, the popularity of 5Pointz as an open-air museum likely contributed to the development of the neighborhood that led to the decision to demolish it, which points to the special need for forward-thinking legal protection of arts initiatives in public areas off the beaten path.

Sometimes when a building or site is sold, the artwork that adorns it no longer fits in with the taste or interests of the new owner. Lumenscape (2009), a City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art piece created by artist Rob Ley, lost its site-specific home above the Wilshire and Western Metro station when the newly constructed Solair building was sold shortly after opening. The new owners, Starwood Capital Group, decided to remove the piece, but thoughtfully gave Ley the option to take it back rather than simply disposing of it. Ley has since sought a more permanent location for the work. Planning for possibilities like the sale of the underlying site is wise, and to protect their interests artists should think like lawyers or engage others to do it for them.

Maintenance—or the lack thereof—is another major issue when it comes to the longevity of a public work. While freestanding art in bronze, marble, or metal needs occasional cleaning and restoration, site-specific installations and new media work can require a lot more attention. In the case of Athena Tacha’s installation Green Acres, created for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Trenton, NJ, the DEP asserted that it needed to replace the work because the ground tiles, which had settled unevenly over the years, were a safety hazard in the case of emergency evacuations. Tacha claimed that the problem was caused by poor maintenance and the DEP’s decision to add trees to the planter boxes without consulting her – the roots eventually grew beneath the tiles and disrupted them.


Athena Tacha’s Green Acres was threatened to be removed for reasons related to public safety and maintenance. Photo credit: Athena Tacha, 1987 (The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

The rise in new media and digital art has resulted in a whole new set of maintenance issues. If an artwork isn’t properly installed or funds are not set aside for routine repairs and updates, a once visually stunning piece can become a public art fail. Once described as a “floating television garden,” video art pioneer Nam June Paik’s Video Arbor (1990) is composed of cage-like columns supporting multiple TVs surrounded by wisteria. Although the foliage is regularly trimmed back, visitors report that the televisions are rarely on, and the site’s management has blamed faulty wiring and an outdated LaserDisc system for the AV problems. Preservationists have started a conversation with the Nam June Paik Foundation in the hope of procuring financial support for the repair and upkeep of Video Arbor. However, if the managers of the site where an artwork resides don’t have the resources to fix these kinds of technical and equipment failures, the easiest solution may be to take the work down. Specifying the maintenance that will be required—and who is accountable for performing it—in the early phases of a project’s development can go a long way toward preserving it as long as possible.

Perhaps the most difficult issue to avoid is shifts in social attitudes and values. At the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, a bronze statue called “Silent Sam” was erected in 1913 to commemorate the 321 alumni who died fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. A hundred years later, members of the student body, which now includes many African Americans, consider the 20-foot Confederate soldier to be racially offensive and a thinly disguised tribute to the legacy of slavery. Despite the school’s attempt to quell criticism by erecting another monument, Unsung Founders Memorial by Do-Ho Suh, celebrating the unknown slaves who help build the university, detractors continue to call for the older bronze to be removed. At the same time, there are those who would rather see the piece contextualized with a plaque speaking to the history of racial discrimination associated with it. Of course, art is sometimes designed to be provocative; in this case, though, public attitudes have changed over time, creating new controversies that were not anticipated by the artist or the owners of the site. To stave off more immediate backlashes, however, public arts commissioners and artists can include local communities in the creative process to ensure their values and interests are reflected as accurately as possible in the final work.

Rights and Responsibilities

Regardless of why it happens, the decision to remove public art is almost never the artist’s. While abrupt disposal may feel to the artist—and devotees, as in the case of 5Pointz—as though a painting she labored over has publicly had a hole punched through it, the actual outcome for the work may not be outright demolition. It could be indefinite storage, sale on the secondary market (usually for the owner’s benefit) or, in the case of Ley, a return to the artist. In an effort to avoid these events, every artist should think carefully in advance about how to preserve her vision.

So what can artists do to ensure their work is protected in the long run? States differ slightly in their public arts policies and the rights they allot to artists. The Art Law Blog points to guidelines established by Americans for the Arts to help commissioning agencies and artists sidestep potential snafus. The national Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990 also states that artists have “the right—(B) to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.” VARA has helped numerous artists prevent destruction or removal of their works over the years, but it is not a panacea. VARA only covers works produced after 1990 – and public art contracts often include waivers of this right. In the case of 5Pointz, the judges considering the case ruled the building was not a “work of visual art” and therefore not of “recognized stature” under the act.

With the popularity of public art programs growing around the country, debates over what should be done when an artwork is no longer welcome at its site will continue. One solution to the controversy may be to establish a decommissioning standard wherein work that was once considered permanent can be formally and more respectfully retired from its original location if another home or collector is found for it. Another interesting model is temporary arts commissions like those made by the NYC Public Art Fund. In these instances, the public art has a limited exhibition life, the opportunity to change venues, and the potential for purchase and permanent display. Regardless of whether these options are embraced as industry standards, artists must be vigilant about negotiating on their own behalf to avoid VARA waivers, ensure proper funds are available for installation and long-term maintenance, and at the very least procure a right of first refusal should their artwork ever be displaced.

  • Clare Haggarty

    Thank you for this article, it is full of useful resources for artists and public art administrators alike. I am filing it away. One small correction: Lumenscape was commissioned by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, not the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

    • Jena Lee

      Clare, thank you for the correction! I’ve made the change to the text. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and find it useful!