It’s easy to overlook public art — until it suddenly disappears. Recently, Penn State removed its statue of the late football coach Joe Paterno after a huge outcry (both for and against keeping it). Last year, Maine’s governor made the controversial decision to remove a mural that celebrated the labor movement, housed at the state’s Department of Labor.
A year ago, the University of Wyoming’s Art Museum commissioned an outdoor sculpture from British artist Chris Drury. Carbon Sink was a 36-foot-diameter vortex of logs killed by pine beetles atop a bed of Wyoming coal. The artist said he wanted to draw a connection between Wyoming’s extractive industries and damage wrought by climate change (which has encouraged a devastating pine beetle infestation across the West). Following this year’s commencement — less than a year later — the sculpture was gone: the logs put in a scrap heap, and the coal into the university’s power plant.
“I thought it was a little hypocritical to use carbon dollars to fund an anti-carbon sculpture,” says Tom Lubnau, the Republican majority leader of the Wyoming State House of Representatives. Lubnau represents Gillette, the center of the state’s coal and natural gas region. He notes that between 60-80 percent of Wyoming’s budget — and by extension the University’s budget — comes from taxes on the energy sector. Lubnau’s comment got play in the New York Times and elsewhere, something he tells Kurt Andersen he finds “surprising,” since in his mind, he was just pointing out the obvious.
Lubnau denies that lawmakers demanded the sculpture’s demise. “It was always meant to be temporary,” he says. But Jeffrey Lockwood, a professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the university, believes that the removal “was a political response to political pressure.” Lockwood has written about the controversy for the Wyoming news site Wyofile. The sculpture, he reports, was intended to remain in place until it had eroded entirely.
In a recent bill, Wyoming gave the university’s Energy Resources Council — an industry group — right of approval over art going up in the university’s newly renovated recreation center. Lubnau doesn’t see any issue with that. “What’s wrong with allowing … [the] industry [to] have approval, or the veto power on a few pieces of art in this one building?”
Lockwood sees the opposition to the work as ironic, since he believes it was not meant as an attack on the energy sector. Producers and consumers alike, he says, “we’re all culpable with regard to climate change.”