New Orleans, LA USA: Multi-million dollar Lafayette Square eye sculpture vandalized

Multi-million dollar Lafayette Square eye sculpture vandalized

Published: Wednesday, August 11, 2010, 10:40 AM Updated: Wednesday, August 11, 2010, 11:28 AM

Doug MacCash, The Times-Picayune

After three years of turning heads on Lafayette Square, a valuable sculpture is leaving the city as a crime victim

Call it another black eye for New Orleans. On the night of July 15, a thief pried the bronze corneas from that set of giant disembodied eyeballs that have stood sentinel on the Camp Street side of Lafayette Square since February 2007.

Jennifer Zdon / The Times-Picayune ArchiveJack Zimmerman makes use of the Louise Bourgeois sculpture ‘Eye Benches IV.’ Last month, the bronze grates that protect the lights were stolen.
Did the crowbar-wielding crook realize he was defacing a work of art valued at $2.7 million that any city in the world would cherish? When he felt the metal parts bend then break away from their moorings, did the thief realize the sculpture had been loaned to the people of New Orleans by one of the 20th century’s most renowned artists as a gesture of post-Katrina goodwill or that the elderly artist had covered the $45,000 in shipping and installation costs to get it here?

As he slipped away into the summer night, did the petty criminal know that the artist had died just weeks earlier, making the sculpture an even more poignant and precious landmark?

Probably not.

The stolen bronze parts, about the size of dinner plates, were described in the police report as “six concentric circles held together with an X bracket.” Like bronze barricades they protected the lighted corneas that shine like beacons toward the federal courthouse across the busy street. No sane art thief would deface a set of modern sculptures for an aesthetically irrelevant pair of metal grids. A vandal bent on defacing the artwork for whatever antisocial reason would have left the heavy, incriminating grids at the scene, right? Deviant logic further dictates that a vandal would have broken the glass corneas beneath the grids.

All things considered, it’s safe to suppose this cultural crime was committed for the same reason that bronze sculpture disappeared from the studio of New Orleans’ late great sculptor John Scott in 2006, and aluminum sculpture disappeared from New Orleans sculptor Lin Emery’s studio in March — the illicit search for scrap metal to sell.

Sights for sore eyes

Michael Manjarris, an abundantly energetic Texan, and Peter Lundberg, an equally ambitious Vermonter, share a passion for placing art in public places. Both men are sculptors and sculpture park designers. Together and separately, they’ve spent their careers installing hundreds of sculptures around the world.

After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, New Orleans-born Manjarris was called on by Crescent City benefactors to bring his art-wrangling expertise to his blighted hometown, where they believed stirring examples of modern art would be a welcome distraction for people during the dreary rebuilding process. Manjarris agreed to try to convince artists to loan work to the crippled city and Lundberg volunteered to partner in the project. In November 2005 an altruistic endeavor called Sculpture for New Orleans was born, resulting in 50 sculptures on display throughout the city to date.

Few rival the value or art-history significance of the eyes on Lafayette Square, by Louise Bourgeois.

Bourgeois, who was born in Paris but lived for most of her life in New York, began her career as an artist in the 1950s, when popular sculpture was mostly hard-edged and humorless. Her sometimes naughty, sometimes icky, and always weird artwork eventually earned her a place in the pantheon of international art deities. New Orleanians may even recognize her name: She made that gigantic creepy spider that stalks the far reaches of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park.

So her big shining eyes — titled “Eye Benches IV” — were a welcome sight in Lafayette Square, where passersby could sit for a spell on the built-in benches at the back of the eyeballs.

Bourgeois was 95 when her the sculpture was lent to New Orleans. She was 98 when she died in May.

The beginning of the end

Two months later, police were notified of the theft by Federal Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan, who is a founding member of the Lafayette Square Conservancy, a post-Katrina organization bent on keeping the city’s second-oldest city square beautiful. She personally visited a couple of scrap yards to search for the stolen grids, but had no luck.

Doug MacCash / The Times-PicayuneA flyer posted in Lafayette Square offers a reward.
Manjarris arranged for a flyer to be posted near the “Eye Benches” offering a reward for information on the crime. No one responded. He also set about arranging for a bronze cornea transplant.

The “Eye Benches” were insured, and Manjarris said by e-mail last month that he was raising the $2,500 deductible so that the grids could be remade. But the folks at the Bourgeois studio, who last spring had paid to repair one of the eye grids after it was bent by vandals, said the insurance claim wouldn’t be necessary. That was the good news. The bad news: They began the process of moving the sculpture back to New York.

The “Eyes” were scheduled to stay in the city for only 12 months, but Bourgeois’ studio managers decided to let the sculpture stay for more than twice that long.

Now a street scavenger’s lust for scrap metal is sending the sculpture away. The eyes will beam their light across Camp Street until after Labor Day, which falls just eight days after the fifth anniversary of the devastating storm and flood they helped us see past.

Manjarris and others recall that the original insurance value of “Eye Benches IV” was $800,000. But recently, when Lafayette Square Conservancy board member Babs Johnson suggested raising money to buy sculpture, the Bourgeois studio revealed that the current retail price of the piece is $2.7 million.

Scrap dealers that I consulted by phone said bronze is fetching from $1.30 to $1.70 per pound.

Eye Benches IV

What: A bronze scultpture by Louise Bourgeois Where: Lafayette Square, Camp Street side

When: The sculpture was placed in New Orleans as part of the public art project Sculpture for New Orleans in Feburary 2007.

Value: $800,000 at the time of its placement; after Bourgeois’ death in May at age 98, the work appraised at $2.7 million.

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