The Tilt of Public Art: Cultural Communication & the Removal of Tilted Arc

In 1989 Richard Serra’s sculpture “Tilted Arc” was removed from Federal Plaza in New York City. “Tilted Arc” was a 120 foot long curved slab of patina covered steel that was positioned so that it diagonally bisected the plaza. Serra had apparently been promised, and created the work in consideration of, its permanence in the location. Amid public outcry and a subsequent appellate court decision which found that the site specific work, and Serra’s speech, was not destroyed or limited by the disassociation of “Tilted Arc” from the plaza location, the piece was dismantled and removed. It is apparently still owned by the GSA and stored in a government facility.

Anyone who has visited Federal Plaza, perhaps waiting in the early morning lines for the now named US CIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly INS) would likely have perceived the significance of Serra’s piece. In one aspect, it signified a certain impediment to the services rendered in the building, and perhaps of bureaucracy and policy as well.

The removal of “Tilted Arc” occurred before the U.S. adoption of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) which is our version of federally-based moral rights for artists. VARA was adopted primarily to comply with the Berne Convention treaty, rather than as an altruistic attempt to protect artwork that was unpopular, like “Tilted Arc.”

As Michael Brenson’s Art View column (published in the NY Times at the time) suggested, in the aftermath of the “Tilted Arc” episode, government sponsored public art has become skewed towards the pleasing, rather than the provocative. If this is true, then the policy certainly dampens a certain level of cultural communication that can occur between challenging public art and individuals.


Read the appellate court decision that resulted in the removal of Tilted Arc: Serra vs. General Services Administration on

PBS article on Tilted Arc

Images of Tilted Arc, Google search results

For more on moral rights, see The Value of Art and the Natural Rights of Artists: A Discussion of Moral Rights


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3 Responses to “The Tilt of Public Art: Cultural Communication & the Removal of Tilted Arc”

  1. Karen Says:

    “We asked, for instance, what was the influence on the political climate of the United States of the fact that the media, whether as advertisers or as vendors of entertainment and news, presented an image of life as smiling, tolerant, urbane, and (save in sports and politics) relatively affectless.”
    ~David Riesman, from the 1961 preface to “The Lonely Crowd”

  2. Jennifer Unruh Says:

    Thank you–it is an old story, but after 10 years, relevant now too. I think it illustrates why public art tends to be kind of bland, which is not a great approach to engaging people. There’s also an intriguing free speech angle in regards to the government ownership of the artwork…

  3. Andrea Says:

    J- Really enjoyed this article. Very interesting and I feel it supports my feelings that Americans want more and more to be anestetized to anything that causes any other emotion other than happiness and glee. More Prozac please.


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