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Art in the New Gilded Age

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In the Gilded Age, nearly everything was considered a private good to be horded by the rich in their ridiculous mansions. After the Gilded Age, the rise of the idea of the public good meant, among many other things, a lot of public art. Now in the New Gilded Age, we are seeing those public resources become privatized. And while these works of art weren’t exactly public goods, they were displayed publicly for a long time and are now being sold to the highest bidder.

In the space of a few minutes Tuesday night, expect the auction hammer at Christie’s in New York to fall successfully on the sale of Joan Miró’s monumental, totemic bronze sculpture of a woman, “La caresse d’un oiseau” (A bird’s caress). The sale will be an appalling sight.

Why? Odds are the masterpiece will disappear into a private collection.

That’s horrific, because for the last 30 years, the Miró has been a public sculpture standing in the atrium of a downtown Los Angeles corporate tower on Bunker Hill. This week, it will be fully uncoupled from the civic realm, sold off to the highest bidder. A magnificent public amenity will be privatized because few museums have the financial wherewithal to compete at auction.

And the Miró is not the only one. On Thursday, a second important sculpture with the same Bunker Hill lineage also will go on the block. This time, it’s Jean Dubuffet’s “Le Dandy,” a big, shambling figure of a comic urban rake standing more than 10 feet tall.

Both sculptures were part of a publicly mandated art program initiated by L.A.’s Community Redevelopment Agency in the early 1980s. Now, they are being steamrolled by our New Gilded Age. Like the Miró, the public life of the Dubuffet is being traded in for cash.

Many cities have used art as a means for helping to invigorate tired urban neighborhoods. Part of the trade-off for civic assistance in large-scale private developments was a requirement for creating public amenities, including plazas, gardens, seating areas and other features — especially art.

L.A.’s redevelopment agency required developers to pay an add-on fee of 1% of project design and construction costs to create or install public artworks at their sites. The Miró and the Dubuffet — together with sculptures by Louise Nevelson, Nancy Graves and Robert Graham — were part of the $400-million Crocker Center development on Grand Avenue. A project of Maguire Thomas Partners, the pair of skyscrapers were joined together by an expansive, two-level atrium designed by famed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.

CRA/LA ceased to function in 2012. But, according to the CRA contract with Maguire Thomas obtained by The Times, title for the art remains with the building’s owner.

Crocker merged with Wells Fargo in 1986, and the building has changed ownership more than once. New York-based Brookfield Office Properties acquired the complex five years ago, and, as part of a $60-million refurbishment plan, began demolition of Halprin’s atrium design early this year — infuriating the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Halprin died in 2009. Reportedly, this was the celebrated landscape designer’s only interior concourse plan.

Remarkably, no permanent public protections seem to exist for the art. The 1984 CRA contract mandating the developer’s public art responsibilities came with a 30-year expiration date — in this case, ending April 21, 2014. So there appears to be no legal impediment to Brookfield’s liquidation of the public’s art for purely private gain.

While I suppose this isn’t as important to the future of the nation as the era’s ethnic cleansing and slow evisceration of every program that helps the poor, it is still disgusting.

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