Culture » Visual Arts

The river wild

Battle is brewing over ambitious art installation proposal for the Arkansas River

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude hope to start constructing - the Over the River project along the Arkansas River in - early 2008. About two years ago, their The Gates - installation in New York Citys Central Park pushed their - artwork into mainstream culture. Now, supporters in - Salida justify the 71-year-olds project by saying that it - could be their last. - GETTY IMAGES
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  • Christo and Jeanne-Claude hope to start constructing the Over the River project along the Arkansas River in early 2008. About two years ago, their The Gates installation in New York Citys Central Park pushed their artwork into mainstream culture. Now, supporters in Salida justify the 71-year-olds project by saying that it could be their last.

SALIDA The day after world-renowned installation artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Salida to highlight the good their artwork could bring this small mountain town added exposure, commerce, tourism, etc. it was the bad that was the talk of the region.

Just before 7 p.m. Sunday, a butane tanker overturned as it left town, east on U.S. Highway 50. For the next 22 hours, one of the two "major" highways leading in and out of this 5,500-person community was closed as area rescue workers responded. At one point Monday morning, it looked like they had succeeded until the truck the workers had spent all night loading onto a trailer fell off and again crashed to the pavement.

It was awful. And, yet, at the same time, it was perfect.

The traffic-congestion fears that many locals harbor about Christo and Jeanne-Claude's proposed installation a project called "Over the River," in which segmented portions of the Arkansas River from Salida to Parkdale would be covered with 5.9 miles of sheer, white fabric were being realized on a relatively normal day.

Certainly, it was an inconvenience to the locals. But to some, it was also a gift; the accident handed the project's opponents a go-to talking point to counteract arguments the advocates had been spoon-fed by Christo during his Saturday evening speech.

Since 1992, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude first made public their desire to work in this region, the debate over the project's sensibility has been swimming in and out of public consciousness. But with the project slated to display in 2011, and with the artists this month submitting their 2,000-page proposal to the first of the 15 city and county organizations that must approve it, the citizens of Salida are starting to choose sides.

No longer is Christo and Jean-Claude's "Over the River" an ignorable swell in the distance.

"Out of touch'

Early on Monday afternoon, with six miles of traffic starting to back up to Salida's city limits, Greg Felt slumps into a folding chair in the back office of Ark Anglers, his fly-fishing tackle shop just a few miles west of the parking lot that U.S. 50 has become.

Imagine, he says, the chaos that will erupt when a few extra hundred thousand cars pour into town for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's proposed 14-day display.

"Look at the gridlock created by one car crash," he says.

Felt, needless to say, has some worries about the project. It's not a matter of artistic merit, he says. It's a matter of regression.

He knows Christo is funding the entire project himself. He's heard Christo's other promises, too such as spending $1 million to assess and minimize any environmental impact, and paying back the businesses that can prove they lost money as a result of his project.

But it's not just the summer of 2011 that worries Felt. Fly-fishing is about solitude. Knowledgeable fishermen won't be as likely to come and fish the river during the three-year-long construction or six-month-long deconstruction periods. That could negatively affect the years of momentum-building Felt has put into the Arkansas River's fly-fishing tourism industry.

And worse, during his keynote lecture at the Colorado Art Ranch's weekend-long Artposium in Salida, Christo blew off an audience member's question about fly fishing. He noted that fishermen could easily side-cast their lines beneath his drapes.

"It shows just how out of touch the guy is with what the river means to people," Felt says, again shaking his head. "I don't pretend to think I can stop the thing with my petty problems. But I feel like the needs of the people here should go unharmed. That goes without saying."

Though only 70 or so people actually attended Christo's Saturday appearance, many of his comments were public knowledge by Monday. In a town of a few thousand, word travels fast.

Most grating was his condescending lack of concern for his local opposition. Their efforts, Christo says, are just part of the game and are vital to keeping the project in everyone's thinking.

Out of time?

Of course, Salida also has a large contingent of supporters for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's efforts. Businesses reliant on the tourism industry especially the art galleries, hotels and restaurants are all for "Over the River," at least from a business perspective. Granted, they're not quite as vocal as their opponents. But they don't have to be; Christo and his wallet are doing plenty of talking already.

Still, in a town so closely connected to the natural beauty that surrounds it, even the business owners who stand to benefit from increased tourism are at least a little fearful for the environment. It's this portion of the project where most of the unknowns lie. Christo promises his 2,000-page proposal holds these answers.

But Christo's most vocal opponent an organization calling itself Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR for short would rather not rely on such blind faith. If the end-results are unknown, ROAR's members argue they're probably not worth the risk.

"It's just going to be a nightmare," says ROAR president Dan Ainsworth. His small organization, boasting five active board members, is remarkably resilient. So far, ROAR has collected 4,000 signatures for its petition to halt Christo's vision.

With Christo and Jeanne-Claude's proposed construction start date just nine months off, though, ROAR could be running out of time.

If one thing is for sure amongst all of these unknowns, it's this: One way or another, Salida's setting itself up for some sort of notoriety.

"We want to be famous," Ainsworth says, "for being the little town that said no to Christo."

pete@csindy.com

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