In the more than 20 years that the artist Christo has been planning a massive fabric and cable installation called “Over the River” in southern Colorado’s Arkansas River Gorge, he’s endured an endless string of setbacks, delays and expenditures totaling more than $13 million.
The saga may sound like a nightmare, but to the 78-year-old Christo, it’s all just art.
“Anyone who thinks about the project, good or bad, is part of the work of art,” he said, speaking Friday to a packed house in the Schermer Meeting Hall at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village.
“It’s irrelevant whether they like it or dislike it — they are affected by the work.”
Christo began planning “Over the River” with his late wife and partner Jeanne-Claude around 1992. The project would involve draping nearly 6 miles of silver fabric over steel cables spanning sections of the Arkansas River Gorge between Salida and Canon City.
The idea has inspired intense opposition from some residents in the area, and a group called Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR), which filed two lawsuits in 2011 claiming violations of federal environmental law, are aiming to stop the project. Judges in Denver could rule on both by the end of the year.
Speaking in a thick Bulgarian accent, pacing and gesturing excitedly as he talked, Christo told the Anderson Ranch crowd that navigating the lengthy and bureaucratic public process has been an important part of many of his art installations.
“I’m not a masochist — this is how the works of art develop,” he said.
With “The Gates,” a series of 7,503 metal gates draped with saffron colored fabric that Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed in New York City’s Central Park in 2005, winning approval took 26 years.
“For all of our projects, the hardest part is to get permission. Everything in the world belongs to somebody,” he quipped, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Christo said the Arkansas River Gorge was not an arbitrary choice for his “Over the River” installation. He and Jeanne-Claude investigated 89 other American rivers — including the Salmon, the Cache La Poudre and the Wind River — before settling on southern Colorado, he said.
Part of the Arkansas’ appeal was the fact that the river runs from east to west, so that fabric panels suspended over the water would appear rosy in the morning, platinum in the midday sun, and golden in the evening. The panels would be embedded with small aluminum particles, making them opaque to drivers above and transparent to rafters below.
The river is also directly adjacent to State Highway 50 and is highly used by rafters and kayakers, Christo said, making it an ideal site for a public art project.
“This is a summer project, for rafters,” he said, noting that the Arkansas River is the most rafted waterway in the U.S. during parts of the year.
Installing the project, he said, could take as long as 28 months. It would be open as a free public exhibition for about two weeks in an August of some future year, and then would be disassembled for good, and the components recycled.
Christo speaks at Anderson Ranch on Friday afternoon. Christo’s remarks spanned the length of his more than 50-year career installing large-scale — and sometimes controversial — public art projects, including his current quest to drape parts of a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River Gorge in southern Colorado in translucent silver fabric.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are known for their large-scale, eye catching style. The pair has wrapped the entire German Parliament in a fabric shroud, for instance, and has surrounded islands off the coast of Florida with swaths of bright pink cloth.
Yet their financial model also sets them apart, as every project is financed through the sale of sketches, drawings and collages that Christo makes during the planning phase.
On Friday, Christo gave a succinct explanation of his financial model: Art collectors and dealers, he said, “choose the work, they give us money, and they take the work. This is how we have money. I hope you understand!”
The truth, of course, is far more complicated, and Christo told the crowd at Anderson Ranch about the corporate structure that he uses to finance his vast projects.
Christo’s artistic endeavors fall under the umbrella of a company he created called the CVG Corporation, and he forms a wholly owned corporate subsidiary for each of his art projects.
Using a stockpile of his valuable sketches, collages and other artwork that he keeps in a storage facility in Sweden, Christo secures lines of credit from banks to finance his projects. His trove of art serves as collateral.
“Of course, these are banks that think my art has value,” he said.
Artist’s legal battles continue
With the two lawsuits from ROAR still winding their way through the court system, the ultimate fate of “Over The River” remains up in the air. ROAR’s lawsuits allege that the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated its own policies when it granted Christo a permit to construct his project in a part of the Arkansas River Gorge that’s classified as an area of “Critical Environmental Concern,” because of its value for bighorn sheep and other species.
The group has objected to Christo’s plans to drill holes in the canyon rim to support his fabric panels, and has also claimed that delays along Highway 50 during the construction process would pose a large inconvenience to residents in the area.
Despite pledges from Christo and his team to improve bighorn sheep habitat in the Arkansas River Gorge and abide by other BLM recommendations outlined in an environmental impact statement, ROAR spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo said she and her colleagues wont rest until the project is completely off the table.
“We are not willing to get into ‘If they do this, it will be OK,’” she said, “because our whole premise is that this is a destructive project.”
Anzelmo said despite Christo’s claims that he finances all of his own work, the lengthy reviews of the project by state and federal officials have come at a high cost to taxpayers.
“Even before the lawsuits, there have been federal agencies and employees evaluating documents and holding meetings,” she said. “The federal taxpayer is footing a big bill for this.”
Despite the opposition, Christo’s track record does show him to be a patient and persistent advocate of his own work, and on Friday he gave no indication that he’ll drop the “Over the River” project if his side is defeated in court.