The Wall Street Journal just printed an interesting article by reporter Lucette Lagnado on a controversial Larry Rivers sculpture in Sag Harbor, NY. The sculpture is of two nude legs, female, standing over 16 feet tall and is displayed outside of a private residence for the public to “enjoy”. It has become controversial for several reasons, but the biggest legal issue is whether it must subscribe to local “building” codes. The building codes in that upscale NY town state that structures above 16 feet tall must be permitted and approved by the historic and landmark committees. This work would not likely be approved. So must publicly displayed art subscribe to the building codes??
My view is that building codes per se are meant for habitable structures, like houses, stairways, electrical circuits, foundations, etc and are designed to protect the residents and the public from disasters like fires, earthquakes, storms and the like, as well as shoddy construction, so they require review by engineers for structural integrity. Technically speaking, a sculpture does not fall into the habitable structure category. However, it is very common practice in the genre of art that is displayed in publicly accessible areas to require a structural review by a licensed and certified engineer, to ensure that there is no danger present to a public audience and passersby. So if this Rivers sculpture could fall apart due to weak welds in high winds for example and land on a pedestrian sidewalk, it would be wise to have it evaluated by a structural engineer and certified for its safety and integrity. This also serves to relieve the artist, and/or commissioning agent or owner, of liability should something devastating occur, assuming the work was built to designed engineering requirements.
Alternatively, a “sculpture code” or “public art code” could be adopted by a city that outlines the engineering process and requirements that may be unique to public artwork, but this has not occurred in many cities, if any, to my knowledge. Some arts commissions have adopted across the board structural review guidelines, but they are not code. This seems like a fair solution, since artwork is usually not “lived in” the way a building is inhabited and would demand different criteria for approval. But there may be some issues that will require flexibility on the part of the evaluating engineers, since art is always unique in form and structure, and not always an isolated object but sometimes could be interactive and environmental or even architectural in nature. A thorny issue brought to light…..