Throw Christo to the voters of Colorado
Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Salida last week to open the annual Art Walk celebration, and to promote their “Over the River” project.They were here about a month ago for Colorado’s first “Artposium,” and I got to see them. They reminded me of the old “Sonny and Cher” TV show: He pontificated, she punctured. We laughed.I had been advised that there would be protests outside the hall where they spoke. The local opponents of “Over the River” had promised not to give Christo a free ride, but I saw no signs and heard no catcalls.Christo and Jeanne-Claude practice their art in a big way, most recently with “The Gates” project in New York City’s Central Park. Back in 1972, they hung a curtain across Rifle Gap on the Western Slope; the wind destroyed it. They have wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, placed 3,100 umbrellas in California and Japan, and surrounded islands near Miami with floating pink sheets.”Over the River” involves suspending translucent fabric over stretches of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City. Hundreds of anchored steel cables would be strung across the river, then the curtains would be attached to the cables. They would be 8 to 25 feet above the river, so that rafts and kayaks could pass beneath.All told, about 6 miles of river would be covered, with significant gaps between the fabric zones. It would stand for two weeks in late summer – likely in 2011 at the earliest.Christo and Jeanne-Claude first promoted “Over the River” about a decade ago, but then they got sidetracked. Their Central Park “Gates” project had been opposed by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. After he left office, the new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, supported the project. So the artists worked in New York before returning their attention to Colorado.Now there’s a 2,029-page “Over The River Design and Planning Report” on file with the federal Bureau of Land Management office in Cañon City, which will presumably lead to an Environmental Impact Statement. The BLM is the lead agency; there are many other governmental entities involved, from municipal and county officials to the Colorado Department of Transportation to the Federal Aviation Administration.The theory seems to be that it is possible to predict and study all possible effects of the project, from highway lane closures during construction to the watering habits of resident bighorn sheep, and come to a scientific conclusion.But can you really construct a risk-benefit ratio on a work of art? I’m rather agnostic on the project, but I know people who are passionately in favor of it, for reasons that range from aesthetic to financial. I also know people who are fervently opposed, for reasons that extend from public safety to concern about riverine eagles.There isn’t a scientific answer to this. For every statement about what an untrammeled vista the canyon offers, there’s the counter that it’s a venue that has been worked hard for the past 150 years – railroad, highway, quarries, charcoal logging, etc.So this is actually a political question, and it ought to be resolved in a political way, with an election. Let each side make its case to the affected public, hold a vote and abide by it.The “Over the River” controversy reminds me of the fight over Colorado hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics 35 years ago. Authorities told us the winter games would be a boon to Colorado. Others said they would be an immense drain on the state treasury and an inspiration to trashy development in the mountains.Dick Lamm, then in the state legislature and an opponent, found a way to put the Winter Olympics question on the 1972 ballot. Colorado voters agreed with him.It did not hurt the state’s economy to be the only place in the world that turned down the games after being awarded them. Throughout the 1970s, mountain landscapes turned into real estate at a dizzying rate. On occasion I heard visitors say they decided to vacation here because “Colorado must be a really special place to turn down the Olympics.”And if the “Over the River” opponents win, this area might get just as much traffic and congestion as people flock to see “the place that turned Christo down.” But either way, it ought to be a decision made by the public, not by a federal agency. Ed Quillen is a writer in Salida, Colo., where he produces regular op-ed columns for The Denver Post and publishes Colorado Central, a small regional monthly magazine.
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