FWMoA: Reality TV

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art will collect, preserve and present American and related art to engage and educate broad and diverse audiences throughout the region to add value to their lives. I’ve copied and pasted this sentence into hundreds of grant proposals, stamped it into countless museum publications, analyzed its meaning with board members, worked with my colleagues to weave those activities into every museum program, and conveyed this message to every casual visitor who wanders onto the requisite “About” page of our website. Those 32 words define the work of this museum every day for the staff and board as we put our shoulders to the wheel in the name of art for the betterment of the community. But what does that work look like in real life? If life at FWMoA were a reality TV show, what would our producers exploit for the sake of juicy television?

A FWMoA reality show would undoubtedly include the most dramatic collection story in our history. On June 16, 2013, a drunk driver effectively destroyed our largest, most valuable work of art, Mark di Suvero’s Helmholtz.

Helmholtz, pre-crash. The outdoor sculpture is an abstracted form in red.
Before the crash. Mark di Suvero, American, b. 1933. Helmholtz. Stainless steel and painted steel, 1985. Courtesy of the Artist, 1986.03. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

This awe-inspiring beauty (by my standards, at least), had lorded over the arts campus since 1986, asserting his presence with 20,000 pounds of steel I-beams that towered 30 feet into the canopy of Freimann Square. Red-orange legs positioned in the stance of a charging bull burned brightly in the green serenity of the lush park, and a minimalist stainless steel half-circle suggested the stubborn, solid head atop this powerful animal. With this vision in your mind, you can imagine what must happen to topple this monumental work of art.

I’ll begin this tale with the heroic efforts of FWMoA Director of Facilities Scott Tarr, who, along with Registrar Leah Reeder, took the first calls from police in the early morning hours of Father’s Day 2013. Much like the medical field, museum security standards require certain staff to be “on call” whenever the collection or building is threatened, thus fulfilling the part of our mission that calls for collecting and preserving American art. And like emergency first responders, Scott and Leah rushed to the scene of the accident, finding the once-majestic Helmholtz mangled and clinging to life.

Helmholtz is struck
Helmholtz is struck. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The “bad guy” of this story is a young man who misjudged both his ability to operate a vehicle and the terrain over which he traveled. After a night of presumed revelry, we know he eventually turned south on Barr Street, crossing Main Street at a speed which left him no time to realize Barr Street terminates almost immediately. His pickup swiftly hurtled over the curb, skidded across the park, and pummeled straight into the bull’s left foot. The truck’s power lifted the leg, which jammed deep into the windshield, and the momentum of the vehicle twisted Helmholtz until he could no longer stand.

Miraculously, the driver was unharmed and we, as a staff, are grateful that this accident caused no loss of life. But amid the wreckage of this almost-tragedy, our inebriated friend found himself agile enough to escape his truck, run behind a nearby restaurant, and hide until police found him. Police soon found our friend and reportedly asked him about his truck, to which he replied, “I don’t have a truck.”

Helmholtz is dismantled
Helmholtz is dismantled. Photo courtesy of FWMoA staff.

Well, certainly not anymore. And we didn’t have a Helmholtz—at least not one that we recognized. As soon as the accident was cleaned up, a snow fence the color of the lifeless sculpture surrounded the beams that now lay like pathetic pick-up sticks.

What many people don’t know is we went into crisis mode for a few weeks, and that most of us had never responded to a disaster like this in our careers. You hope every day that nothing would happen to the art in your care but realistically must be prepared for when something does happen. What they don’t train you to do in school is how to break the news to an artist when his original work of art is ruined, how to respond to letters to the editor that described Helmholtz as a “hunk of junk” (and that’s one of the more PG descriptors we heard), how to pleasantly correct erroneous assumptions that the sculpture’s repair would only be possible on the backs of taxpayers, and so on. And, ironically, this is the stuff of real life at FWMoA, even though nothing but experience can prepare you for it.

After our shock had worn off, we set to work doing what our mission calls us to do: repair this thing and educate the public on the reasons it’s good to do so. Leah, Brian Williamson (Technical Director), and Charles Shepard (our CEO) managed the insurance process beautifully, filing the biggest claim in our history (that’s what paid for it, folks) to bring Helmholtz back to his glory. I managed an enthusiastic press who were hungry for developments in this story, taking advantage of every well-wisher and naysayer to highlight this sculpture’s value to our community. Exhibitions staff Joslyn Elliott worked with colleagues to create a triumphant gallery exhibition documenting the history of Helmholtz in our community from its birth in the 1980s, to its move in 2002, to its repair after the crash.

Helmholtz crossed the country and spent over a year in Mark di Suvero’s Petaluma, California studio for repairs overseen by Mark himself. In September 2014, we were finally ready to welcome back our beloved bull, and we again rose to the challenge of overseeing the installation of the largest work in our collection. The press roused the story once more, the public applauded and booed in equal measure, and construction equipment precisely placed each limb of the bull into the charging stance he had held in Freimann Square.

Helmholtz is loaded on the truck headed for Petaluma, CA.
Helmholtz is loaded on the truck headed for Petaluma, CA. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

And yet, perceptive observers will notice he’s now pivoted to the East just a bit, and what was a stainless steel half circle on pre-crash Helmholtz is now a complete circle with noticeable surface texture added in the fabrication process. This may be the most fascinating element of this story: Mark di Suvero, perhaps the most ambitious and revolutionary sculptor of the 20th century, gave new life to this sculpture after it had been virtually killed by a reckless driver. The sculpture we all had known was never coming back, but its creator would summon the vitality that was always the spirit of Helmholtz and allow its rebirth.

Helmholtz, after repairs, where it now stands in Freimann Square.
Helmholtz, after repairs. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

There would be yet another ray of light peeking through the clouds. Not long after the Helmholtz saga was finished, Mark’s studio sent us a check that had been paid to him for repairs by our insurance company. He said we must use it for educational purposes, which is, as we all know, at the heart of the FWMoA mission.

Helmholtz was a gift to FWMoA of the artist and the Alcoa Foundation on behalf of Rea Magnet Wire Co. Installation was made possible by Hagerman Construction Corporation and Martin Inc.

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