This Old Crater

A volcanic cinder cone near Flagstaff will soon become one of the world's most significant pieces of environmental art

Turrell was trying to do both.
By the mid-1990s, Turrell had outstanding loans on land alone of more than half a million dollars, and he was spending hundreds of thousands more to rebuild the deteriorated wells, fences and equipment of the properties he had consolidated. Upkeep on the ranch cost around $160,000 to $180,000 a year. And hundreds of thousands more dollars were going into cattle and machinery.

Had it not been for Turrell's art income, which was substantial, keeping the ranch and protecting the land around the crater wouldn't have been possible. Yet even that wasn't enough to keep his enterprise from almost tumbling down.

In the years since Dia abandoned the project, Turrell's art star had risen significantly. His museum and gallery installations had attracted a loyal following throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He put money and time into the crater whenever he could. But the project lingered and moved ahead in fits and starts.

Turrell says he thought about it almost constantly, designing and redesigning it in his head and on paper hundreds if not thousands of times. Private benefactors had regularly come to his and Skystone's aid. But the project lacked a backer that could bankroll its completion.

That changed in 1994, when the Lannan Foundation opened discussions with Turrell and Skystone about supporting the construction of Roden Crater. Like Dia, the Santa Fe nonprofit (then located in Los Angeles) funded artworks and other causes that weren't likely to receive funding from more mainstream sources. Its $225 million in assets in 1997 put it in the top 1,000 of the approximately 50,000 philanthropies in the United States. The director of the foundation, J. Patrick Lannan, and his wife, Anne, who sits on Dia's board of directors, had been fans and collectors of Turrell's work for many years.

In 1994 and 1995, Lannan granted Skystone a total of $240,000 to get the project rolling. Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, the Italian industrialist and collector of contemporary art, gave Skystone $250,000 for Turrell to work with Flagstaff architect Paul Bustamante to complete the project's construction plans. Lannan also paid for a builder to supervise construction.

And in 1996, a reorganized Dia--now called the Dia Center for the Arts--reentered the picture with support to develop a Web site and other educational programs for the project.

By then Turrell's marriage to Julia Brown Turrell, a museum curator, now at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, who was then serving as Skystone's director, was falling apart. And years of financial strain had caught up with the artist.

"Jim's problem was that he was surrounded by people who patted him on the back and told him what he wanted to hear," says an associate who requested anonymity because of ongoing dealings with Turrell. "It's a wonderful thing, but it just wasn't real."

People familiar with the problems at the time say that in addition to being in debt on the ranch and land, Turrell, like a good many creative heads, wasn't particularly interested in the mundane details of managing a business. By then both his ranch and art were consolidated under a corporation called Turrell Trading.

"But he had no effective way to evaluate what he could and could not do," says the associate. "He wasn't realistic about the cost and aspects of the crater. There was no reality in anything he was looking at."

Brown resigned from Skystone at the end of 1996. She wouldn't discuss her involvement with Turrell or Skystone with New Times.

In the spring of 1997, reality hit the table, when Lannan learned the extent of Turrell's financial troubles. Turrell's ranch had been absorbing debts for years. He owed a substantial amount to the IRS, and his divorce threatened his ownership of the land. Lannan insisted that Turrell hire a business manager to straighten out his affairs as well as a studio manager to install his works around the world.

Over the next year, Lannan, Turrell, Skystone and Dia negotiated an agreement determining what form a future partnership in the project might take and what role, if any, the ranch would have.

Early on, there was talk of bringing the ranch into the foundation, where the two could function together the way Turrell had tried to make them work all along.

But the Lannan Foundation balked.
"What it boiled down to was Jim was unwilling to relinquish that portion of his vision for the crater," says ranch manager Doug Ruppel. "And the Lannans were unwilling to have any involvement with the ranch."

Turrell says it was difficult to get Lannan and Skystone to understand what he considered the ranch's key role in the project.

The result was a separation between Skystone and the ranch.
"Skystone didn't want to jeopardize the funding of their art project over what they saw as Jim's playing with this ranch," Ruppel says.

Although the ranch had been a huge financial burden, by 1998 Ruppel had brought it to the brink of profitability.

"Key to that," he says, "was the art project having some involvement in either the cost of the land or the cost of operating the ranch."

Turrell, who had come to view the ranch as a natural extension of his involvement in the crater, says he wanted the foundations to accept the ranch as an essential part of his vision.

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