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Two Artists, a River and a Debate over Public Space

The project would extend along sections of the Arkansas River between two cities in Colorado.
Melody Kokoszka, NPR /
The project would extend along sections of the Arkansas River between two cities in Colorado.

The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were last seen swathing New York's Central Park in waves of saffron fabric for "The Gates" in February of last year. Next up: a plan to horizontally suspend panels of fabric in a rural setting over sections of the Arkansas River in central Colorado.

Christo says that much of his work is about "all-togetherness," which he describes as "together everything" -- including bridge, highway, railroad tracks, people, rocks, trees, sky."

This new endeavor, titled "Over the River," would debut in the summer of 2009 at the earliest.

While the artists imagine that "Over the River" will create an aesthetic interplay between the river, the fabric and their surroundings, local response is not so harmonious.

At a recent series of meetings organized by the federal Bureau of Land Management, it became clear that many people who live along the Arkansas are fiercely protective of the rural qualities that drew Christo and Jeanne-Claude to the locale.

A group called Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR, is petitioning state and federal agencies to deny the project. They have gathered at least 750 signatures so far. The project's opponents fear it will bring increased traffic and general mayhem, along with a potentially negative impact on wildlife.

"Over the River" has its share of boosters, too. Those in favor say it will benefit local businesses and and point out that the influx of sightseers will only be for the two-week duration of the exhibit.

The artists say the social debate is an essential part of every project they do -- such projects have included wrapping Paris' Pont Neuf in fabric and opening thousands of umbrellas across valleys in America and Japan simultaneously. Some art critics think it's Christo and Jeanne-Claude's very ability to synthesize social and material dynamics that has made them two of the most important public artists working today.

Katy Siegel, a public art scholar and associate professor of art history at New York's Hunter College, says Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work is important because it engages millions of people who don't visit galleries or museums. "It's good to be talking about these things," she says. "What is public? What's in the public interest? How do we use public space?"

In the coming months, the BLM will decide whether the concerns about traffic and wildlife and public safety can be adequately addressed. To proceed, the artists need permits from the BLM, as well as state and local agencies. But whether or not "Over the River" gets cleared, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have sparked public discussions in rural Colorado that range well beyond the ordinary.

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Adam Burke