Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc
Tilted Arc was a sculpture created by artist Richard Serra through a commission from the GSA Art in Architecture Program. The aesthetics, context, and politics of this sculpture were passionately contested, and the artwork was eventually dismantled and put into storage. This page summarizes the events that led to the sculpture’s removal.
GSA commissions Richard Serra
In 1968, GSA constructed the U.S. Customs Court and Federal Building at 26 Federal Plaza, along lower Broadway in New York City. Due to prohibitive inflation and shifting policies within the agency, no artwork for the building was funded at the time of construction. In 1979, GSA authorized the Art in Architecture Program to allocate funds for Richard Serra to create a public artwork for the Federal Plaza, on the corner site adjacent to the U.S. Customs Court and Federal Building (now named for Senator Jacob K. Javitz). Serra’s sculpture, known as Tilted Arc, was installed on July 16, 1981.
Public reactions to the sculpture
Upon its debut, Tilted Arc received both praise and criticism. By September 1981, nearly 1,300 Federal employees who worked at 26 Federal Plaza had signed a petition requesting the removal of the sculpture. Letters of protest were sent to GSA, which owned the two Federal Buildings, the plaza, and the sculpture.
Over the next three and a half years, the perceived merits and deficiencies of Tilted Arc were debated publicly. A multitude of opposing viewpoints emerged, both within and among the government, the art establishment, and the general public. Eventually, a three-day public hearing, organized by the GSA’s regional headquarters in New York, was held from March 6–8, 1985. Serra, arts professionals, civic groups, public officials, and community representatives presented statements at the hearing.
Central arguments for the removal of the sculpture
Building occupants and neighborhood residents criticized the sculpture as an ugly object foisted upon the public by insensitive Government bureaucrats and a condescending art establishment.
Federal employees complained that the sculpture disrupted pedestrian traffic patterns on the plaza, and prohibited its use as a recreational and performance space.
Detractors warned that Tilted Arc was a security hazard that blocked views of the street and could be used as a shield for terrorist attacks against the nearby government offices.
Central arguments for Tilted Arc to remain on the plaza
Supporters of the sculpture argued that its removal would constitute an act of censorship by the Government and violate the rights of the artist.
Arts professionals proposed that historically important, forward-looking art always challenges the society that produces it, and so the removal of Tilted Arc would be a hasty and shortsighted act.
Serra stated that Tilted Arc was a site-specific artwork, the form and meaning of which were inseparable from its intended location on Federal Plaza. The artist affirmed that to divorce the sculpture from its original context would destroy it.
The review panel votes for removal
On April 10, the five-member GSA-appointed panel presiding over the public hearings recommended by a vote of 4 to 1 that Tilted Arc be relocated. On May 1, the Regional Administrator of GSA’s New York office forwarded to the agency’s national Administrator in Washington a recommendation that the sculpture be removed from 26 Federal Plaza. The GSA Administrator specified that Tilted Arc would remain on the plaza until a suitable alternative location could be identified.
GSA dismantles Tilted Arc
In June of 1986, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that it would assist GSA to locate a new site for Tilted Arc. However, Serra adamantly reiterated that the sculpture was site-specific and, if moved, it would be rendered meaningless. In December 1986, Serra filed suit against the GSA for its violation of his contract for the commission, and of his First and Fifth Amendment rights. On August 31, 1987, Serra’s suit was dismissed by the United States District Court in Manhattan. GSA dismantled and removed Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza on March 15, 1989. Since their removal from the plaza, the physical remnants of the sculpture have been preserved in GSA controlled storage.
Legacy of the debate
Despite the heated debates that surrounded the commissioning, installation, and removal of Tilted Arc, these events precipitated a valuable public dialogue about the roles of public art in the United States, and the rights, responsibilities and interests of artists, their patrons and the public.