Though Federal Plaza now sits empty, it was once the home of the artwork that sparked what is often cited as the most infamous public sculpture controversy in all of art law. Its removal questioned artists’ rights, and the strong negative public reaction that it caused raised important questions about artistic freedom, the role of public art in society, and the role of the community in art.
Serra’s work was commissioned by the General Services Administration’s Art-in-Architecture (GSA) and was chosen for the installation by a panel of curators and art critics. His sculpture–a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-tall continuous Cor-Ten steel wall–cut through Federal Plaza, creating a new space in the pre-existing one. Only two months after its installation in 1981, however, a petition was started by federal workers to remove the Arc, claiming that Serra’s work “ruined” the Plaza and made the space unenjoyable and attractive. They said that Tilted Arc was ugly and threatening, and that it was a nuisance to walk around. They also complained that there was no public input on the choosing of the piece and that they couldn’t understand how so much money ($175,000) could be spent on a “rusted metal wall.”
Public criticism eventually died down, but GSA Regional Administrator William Diamond saw the piece as a way to gain more political power. He soon began speaking out against the piece, claiming that it
was destructive to the plaza’s social space and unsuccessfully tried to have the Arc removed and relocated. Although he claimed that he was not criticizing its aesthetic qualities, he ordered that a petition be put up in the lobbies of the two federal buildings that surrounded the Arc for any person who thought that Serra’s work had “no artistic merit.” By creating controversy around the piece, he would appear as a “man of the people” after its removal and would be known as the hero who took down Tilted Arc.
In 1985, Diamond held a public hearing in order to decide the fate of the piece. Artists such as Frank Stella, Mark di Suvero, Donald Judd, and Louise Bourgeios attended the hearing to testify along with Serra in favor of the piece. Stella argued that the piece was a public good and beneficial to all who could enjoy it. Judd said that art should never be destroyed, and that to destroy Serra’s piece would be sacrilege. “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people,” Serra himself said. He also argued that to remove his work–which he was told would be permanent–without his permission would be to violate his rights as an artist. Despite these testimonies, Diamond’s hand-picked jury ruled for its removal. Serra later criticized Diamond for acting as both juror and jury of the trial.
After it was removed in 1989, the Arc was taken apart and its pieces were stored in a government parking lot in Brooklyn. They were then moved to a storage space in Maryland in 1999. Though a petition was created to move it to Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, Serra said that Tilted Arc will never be displayed again other than at its original location because it was designed specifically for the Plaza.