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Once-Controversial Sculpture Returns 30 Years Later

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“I’m a patient person,” said Middlebury Museum of Art Director Richard Saunders.

And that’s a good thing, as it’s taken nearly 30 years for the College, with Saunders’ guidance and perseverance, to take care of some unfinished business.

In May of 1985, on the eve of Commencement, a work of art on campus was set on fire and irreparably damaged. The vandals were never identified, and the debris was ultimately removed and placed into storage.

The work was a sculptural installation called “Way Station” that was created in 1983 by the Christian A. Johnson Visiting Artist Vito Acconci, along with a group of students, during a winter term course he taught about public art.  Situated on the northwest edge of campus along the walkway near what is now Bicentennial Hall, the work was meant to intrigue students who passed by between classes.

“The idea was to encourage contemplation. The work had a spectacular view of the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west, ” explained Saunders.

The mostly grey steel structure consisted of a door that opened to reveal on its inside a painted interior of flags, one over the next. The international array included the United States, Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—all entities that were very much in the news politically at the time. Two steps led down into a small room with a built-in seat and desk. Opposite the door, three rows of moveable panels spelled out the words “God,” “Man,” and “Dog,” and the panels could be moved to reveal the mountain view. On the other side of the panels, viewed from the outside, were painted playing cards. A mirrored front was one-way glass so you could see out that way as well.

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The artist Acconci peers through the panels of playing cards that were damaged in the 1985 fire.

“The intention was for people to sit in the structure and reflect on the politics of the time, and their place in relationship to others,” added Saunders, referring to the overlaid flags and the panels of words. “And the playing cards might represent the idea of chance and unpredictability in our lives.”

What should have been a curious conversation piece for a college community turned instead into the center of an acrid debate. For a variety of reasons, people on campus did not take kindly to the placement of the work, or its stark industrial look.

“When it appeared, with no explanation or context, in the middle of winter, on a central pathway, people were surprised and confused,” said Saunders. “There was very little tolerance then for things you didn’t understand. And there was also no history of art on campus back then. Nothing like what we have today. ”

And what we have today is largely due to the issues that were raised by the Acconci piece and its subsequent removal. The creation in 1994 of the Committee for Art in Public Places at Middlebury, known more commonly as CAPP, was a direct result of that time, and has since introduced numerous works of art, mostly sculpture, throughout the campus. “We wanted people to understand that there is a place for art on campus outside of the Johnson Gallery, which was then the main location for the college’s art collections.”

Throughout the 1990s, Saunders and others took up the cause for reinstalling the Acconci work but found little support.

“As a college, aren’t we supposed to teach our students tolerance for other points of view? Expand your horizons and open your mind up to all sorts of things you may not instantly like or understand? So why would we ignore this work?”

Eventually Saunders found growing support over time, and now, 30 years after it was commissioned, Acconci’s “Way Station” is restored on the Middlebury campus, this time near the pond behind the Mahaney Center for the Arts. An ongoing exhibition in the Museum of Art gives context to the artist and his work—both today and from the time of the vandalism.

“It’s an opportunity to get something positive out of this phoenix-like experience,” noted Saunders, recalling the way it had been torched so many years ago. “It’s a teachable moment, which college is all about.”

The official opening of “Way Station” will take place Friday, October 18, at 2 p.m., behind the MCFA, where the work is located. The exhibition, “Vito Acconci: Thinking Space,” is open through December 8. And the artist, who has since become an accomplished architect as well, will be on campus to deliver an illustrated lecture on Thursday, November 7, at 7 p.m. in Dana Auditorium.