This Old Crater

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

A gale roaring up the side of Roden Crater, blasting construction grit and sand into the gray-bearded face of artist James Turrell, is making it tough for him to describe the serenity he envisions for this old volcano northeast of Flagstaff. He retreats a few paces down a cindery embankment into the shelter of the crater's immense, orange-and-rust-colored bowl.

"With all the construction going on," he says a bit wistfully above the roiling wind, "the crater is a little rough right now--you might say we've sort of broken eggs to make an omelet."

"Eggs" doesn't exactly cover it. One whole flank of the 550-foot mountain has been ripped from rim to base with a trench as wide as two earthmovers. The crater's top, an elliptical bowl the size of three football fields, is rutted and piled with mounds of excavated pumice and lava spew; a portable toilet sits off to the western side. The rim, which Turrell had scooped out and built into an ellipse in the 1980s, has been torn apart. And the eastern base of the mountain has been gutted for the construction of a lodge to house future overnight visitors to the crater.

To Turrell and others familiar with the sere beauty of this cinder cone before the heavy equipment moved in, the scene is bittersweet--but welcomed.

After years of false starts, dashed hopes, and more ups and downs than a theme-park ride, the flurry of hard hats and diesels marks the beginning of the end of Turrell's 25-year quest to turn the volcano overlooking the Painted Desert into what many believe will be one of the world's most significant and complex modern works of environmental art.

The Roden Crater Project will bring heaven to earth in ways that almost no other outpost of art or science does. Most astronomical observatories--including Flagstaff's Naval and Lowell observatories--rely on sophisticated telescopes, computers and other equipment to capture the light of celestial events. But Turrell's will be a lookout for the naked eye, a labyrinth of tunnels, walkways, rooms and other spaces where people can basically watch the changing daylight and nightlight in the sky.

"I've always wanted to make light something that you treasure," says the philosophical Turrell, who relocated to Flagstaff from California in the late 1970s. "Not just light reflected in glass, or in a scrim, or on the surface of some object. But light objectified.

"We generally use it to illuminate other things. But I wanted to force people to pay attention to the thingness and revelation of light. This is a place that will do that."

The first of an expected three rounds of construction, scheduled for completion later next year, will produce, among other things, an 854-foot tunnel that will telescope moonlight into a room bunkered into the northeast flank of the cone. Another portal at the high end of the tunnel will contain a bronze stairway to heaven. And the eye of the crater, connected by a short passageway to the tunnel, will hold a sunken plaza where visitors can lie on sandstone plinths and see the sky as Turrell wants it to be seen: as a vaulting expanse that appears almost within reach.

The project is so exceptional that before construction could begin, Coconino County had to add a "land art" category to its building code. The county researched the existing code, says plans examiner Gilbert Peru, and found that "about the closest match was an amusement structure."

But the unique intent and function of aspects of Turrell's design would have conflicted with the county's existing rules. They would have required illuminated exit signs in Turrell's light-sensitive viewing rooms, and a railing down the middle of the moon tunnel.

"What we realized," says John Farnol, another county plans examiner, "is we had to find a way for this project to live up to the spirit of the code in regards to safety, otherwise the county would never get something like the Statue of Liberty or the St. Louis Arch."

Turrell designed all the viewing rooms at the crater to be underground. Even the lodge is tucked into the side of the cone, so that once construction is done, the crater will show little disruption.

Future construction phases will include a second tunnel, numerous additional subterranean spaces--the entire plan calls for 23--and an amphitheater. They'll be added when the Skystone Foundation, a private nonprofit organization formed by Turrell in Flagstaff in 1982 to help promote and develop the project, finishes raising the more than $15 million that Turrell's entire plan is likely to cost.

Supporters inside and outside the art world say that Turrell's built-out idea will amount to a modern Stonehenge; a monument to human perception which--thanks to the grand scale of light and space in the West--will rank among the greatest works of American art.

The project has already been chronicled and critiqued--often as though it's finished--in dozens of art books and trade articles. Even though the mainstream press seems not to have stumbled on the project, art-world adulation is drawing tourists to the site from as far away as the Netherlands, Germany and Japan.

Neighbors living on the scattered homesteads out by the crater say it isn't unusual to encounter lost pilgrims at their door, asking how to get to the crater. (The project also seems to have drawn the attention of militia types, who think the construction is all part of some secret government plot. Says one neighbor: "A friend of mine had a militia guy show up who . . . wanted to inspect the crater because he thinks it's some kind of government conspiracy to poison our water with some kind of virus or bacteria because we already know too much about things.")

For Turrell, Roden Crater has been an unwavering--and costly--act of faith.
By his own account, the tally of losses includes his two marriages, several other relationships, and--more than once--hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt that nearly sank him and the project.

"It was particularly hard on my last mate," he says. "She really thought I was mortgaging the children's future for this. That was a little bit too much for her, and she left."

The enormousness of the undertaking has turned his personal vision into a corporate venture involving no less than three private nonprofit foundations, numerous benefactors and government agencies, and a small army of northern Arizonans more accustomed to kicking cow pies in cattle yards than stroking their chins in art galleries.

The Dia Art Foundation in New York bought Roden Crater in the late 1970s and began paying Turrell to build his vision for it. The foundation's support collapsed in the early 1980s, forcing Turrell to become a rancher to protect the crater and control the land around it. Ranching enlarged his vision of the crater and the land. But he found that vision difficult to pitch to an urban art world that rarely feels at home on the range. To secure money to begin construction, Turrell had to strike a complicated deal with Skystone, Dia and the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, which is bankrolling most of the current construction cost. He had to sell and donate significant portions of the ranch around the crater to the Skystone Foundation, and take an uncharacteristic step away from the project that has consumed his life.

Turrell's plan seemed so simple at first: Buy a volcano and find the cash to turn it into a scenic view of the sky. But his saga has turned his vision into a poignant lesson about the difficulties of making monumental art on western land.

At 56, Turrell is one of the great illusionists of contemporary art. A student of psychology before he veered into the studio, he has an artist's curiosity about perception and a scientist's preoccupation with knowing.

Friends and associates characterize him as a modern Renaissance man, a charming eccentric who has managed to earn money the old-fashioned way, by attracting private benefactors. He thrives on the chaos of making the esoteric useful. His voice is metaphysically soft, bordering on courtly, masking an intensity and stubbornness that have helped to make him one of the most intriguing artists of the day.

Married and divorced twice, he has children by three women and lives at his ranch outside Flagstaff with his current girlfriend, a young Korean woman who is also an artist.

Over the past 30 years, his installations of light have been featured in dozens of exhibitions. And he has received numerous grants and awards, including a five-year MacArthur Foundation grant commonly referred to as the "genius" award.

Many think that label fits.
"In my sort of narrow art world," says Lynn Herbert, a curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston who organized an exhibition of Turrell's work at the museum last year, "you don't come across minds like Jim's that often. Minds that can take science and psychology and perception and astronomy and bring it down to this very pure vision of light."

It's no coincidence that his vision of light has emerged in an age flooded with artificial glows. Most of his museum and gallery installations depend on modern light sources ranging from projectors and glowing televisions, on the high end, to dimmers, fixtures and fluorescent bulbs from Home Depot.

In the history of art, it isn't difficult to find great painters depicting breathtaking scenes and qualities of light, or stained-glass windows in great cathedrals blazing the colors of religious enlightenment. Yet Turrell's works haven't been about light. They have been light--a medium that, compared with other studio materials, seems to be made out of nothing and performs most of its tricks, as critic Robert Hughes once noted about Turrell's work, behind the eyes, rather than in front of them.

Turrell's magic, says Herbert, has been his ability to transform looking at light into a sensual, even tactile, experience.

His first solo exhibition, at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967, consisted of crisp geometric projections of white light that reshaped the appearance of rooms.

Jim Demetrion was director at the Pasadena Art Museum at the time, and now heads the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. He says Turrell's light projections "really gave an illusion that made you wonder whether you were looking into a corner or just looking at something flat.

"A lot of it had to do with the way he allowed light into the room and manipulated it. You as the viewer weren't able to see the light source in many occasions. So entire parts of a room would kind of disappear."

Many critics and historians credit Turrell's installations from the 1960s and 1970s, along with those of fellow Californians Robert Irwin and Larry Bell, with opening new creative territory both for the idea of installations and the use of light and space.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he furthered his explorations of illusion and space with installations featuring fogs of color that made mirages of surfaces and corners in museum galleries.

Two of Turrell's light installations from the 1970s are included in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's current exhibition of installation art. In conjunction with the opening of the crater project next year, SMOCA will be hosting a major exhibition of Turrell's work.

The effects of Turrell's finest light installations can be profoundly disorienting.

Several people attending Turrell's 1980 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York found his light illusions so convincing that they tried to lean against them--and fell down.

"Unfortunately, one was a woman whose husband was a justice of the Oregon State Supreme Court," says Turrell. "I got sued for that."

He lost the trial and won on appeal. Yet legal realities didn't curtail his pursuit of perceptual conundrums.

The 1998 Houston exhibition had people bumping into things, avoiding "unthings" and generally scratching their heads and rubbing their eyes about what they did and didn't see.

One room was especially bewildering, Herbert says. "It had a piece with a beautiful blue aperture, and people simply lost their equilibrium in it."

Turrell's installations, which sell for about $200,000, have enabled him to work out ideas for the spaces at Roden Crater. He has built outdoor rooms--called "skyspaces" and "sky gardens"--with shaped views of the heavens in various parts of the world. Next year, Scottsdale's public art program will be adding one of Turrell's "skyspaces" to its renovated civic plaza.

The artist has also experimented extensively with "dark spaces," rooms that initially appear totally black. But after about 15 minutes, they begin to dawn on visitors and force them to exercise their eyes in ways that illuminate the personal nature of perception.

His installations are attacks on a culture he thinks has forgotten how to look and see. He often refers to the eyes having their own sense of touch.

Working with the crater project and his other installations, Turrell says he has come to realize "that this ability to feel with the eyes really doesn't happen until the eyes begin to open. We weren't made for bright light because it almost completely closes our eyes. We're made for twilight. That's when our eyes truly open and feeling goes out of them like touch."

The light that visitors encounter at the crater will depend on where they're standing and when.

The crater is essentially an immense camera, with openings to gather and isolate varieties of celestial light. One room will be dedicated to catching light from the solstices and equinoxes.

In others, says Turrell, "I want to isolate lights from different planets. A few years ago, you could actually see your shadow from the light of Venus."

He also wants to mix lights from inside and outside our own solar system.
Says Turrell, "If you eliminate light reflecting off the planets or the moon--light from our star--and you take away light from our galaxy, the Milky Way, you're looking into areas of the sky that have much older light. It's light that would be on average at least 3.5 million years and older.

"I really wanted to isolate that light in the spaces I've designed here. So you feel it physically. You're actually in physical contact with this old light. Light that puts you closer to beginnings."

It isn't difficult to hear religion in Turrell's thoughts about light. The Bible begins with light, and for many of the world's religions, light is the essence of revelation and higher awareness. For Turrell, it has particular meaning.

"I was raised as a Quaker," he says, "and they always talked about going inside to greet the light. I was interested in that. Not only in the visible light but in the light seen with the eyes closed, the light and color in dreams."

Turrell's grandmother used to tell him about greeting the light and about meditations in meetings.

"Of course, you tell that to someone who's 4 years old," says Turrell, "and it's a little hard to actually know what the hell that means, and what to do about it."

And even if he had asked for an explanation, he says, "Some Quakers have this terrible way of repeating the answer that they gave at the first--the one you didn't quite understand. They just sort of say it more slowly, so the answer becomes a question that you have to answer."

If anything, Turrell's art has been an answer that only deepens that mystery. Yet that has been the territory of art since the first light entered the kiva, or lit on the stones at New Grange, in Ireland, or on Abu Simbel in Egypt.

"That's also how light has been worked into the cathedral," says Turrell. "Often the light that fills those spaces engenders more awe than any of the rhetoric from the priesthood."

Turrell says his idea for harnessing the natural awe of a place like Roden Crater began when he was young.

"This is the kind of thing I always wanted to do. As a child, I remember hearing about pyramids." When he was young, he visited the ancient Cambodian city of Ankor Wat, and Mayan and other Native American sites in Mexico and Central America.

He was fascinated, he says, "by the idea of those public spaces emptied of use--the mystery of what they are and were."

He was also drawn to the power of their places--their surroundings. "The people who built those places and others like Abu Simbel, or the great kivas not far from here, or Delphi in Greece, thought enough of those settings to make something happen there."

For the past 30 years, the magic of location and place have lured many artists out of the studio and into the land.

"Environmental art" and "land art" connote some sort of eco-gesture, a submission of human ambition to the facts of nature. But artists like Turrell, Christo, Michael Heizer, Walter DeMaria, Robert Smithson and others have looked to the land as a means to extend the power, scale and reach of their works. Their landworks are efforts to leave a mark, a monument that mediates between human and natural scale.

"You obviously can't compete with nature, but you might insinuate yourself into it," says Michael Govan, director of the Dia Center for the Arts, the resurrected and renamed Dia Art Foundation.

He sees Turrell's Roden Crater continuing the interest American artists have historically had in big light and big space. That continuum began with the Hudson River School of painters, evolved into the large-scale, late-19th-century paintings of the American West and became the large paint-filled canvases of the Abstract Expressionists and color-field painters. Critics have often likened the experience of Turrell's installations to walking into the atmosphere of a Mark Rothko painting.

Yet the beauty of Roden Crater was apparent long before the mustard-colored Caterpillar tractors and concrete batch plant arrived to turn it into a work of art. It was there before Turrell began thinking about enshrining his view of natural phenomena there. And long before the Hopi began referring to the crater and field of volcanoes that stretch from the San Francisco Peaks to the Little Colorado River as the "Testicle Hills."

Few places in the West have as much light on clear afternoons. It fills the air and soaks the surrounding green and tawny shag of rangeland with a brilliance that makes earth and sky appear to go on and on forever.

From the crater's rim, you can see more than 100 miles north across the gorge of the Colorado River and the beginnings of the Grand Canyon into Utah. You can see just as far northeastward beyond the Painted Desert to the Hopi Mesas, and east toward New Mexico. And as day goes down and night rises, the sky carries you millions of light-years back in time.

Before construction began, says Dick Walker, an astronomer who has assisted Turrell with the project since the mid-1980s, Roden had a "pristine beauty that was just awe-inspiring. I've been in deserts all over the world. But there's something about Roden Crater. You go out there, out where you can't hear any tires on the highway, and you feel like you're in another universe. It changes you after a half-hour."

Turrell says it makes you feel like you're on a planet flying through space.

Turrell began looking for the crater in 1974. Like many other artists at the time, he wanted to enlarge the scale of his installations and move them outdoors.

He had taken up flying and renovating antique airplanes in the late 1960s and wanted to create works that captured the light he'd seen at higher altitudes. He especially wanted to re-create an effect known as celestial vaulting.

"The effect," says Walker, "is like that of looking straight up at the sky through a paper-towel tube. It makes the blue look like it's right there, almost as if you could touch it."

The best place to do that was in a crater or other bowl-shaped place elevated above the ground.

Turrell says he needed what amounted to a clear, well-lighted place with few surrounding lights at night. He also needed a land form whose rim was high enough to block out the earth's horizon and the hazy-blue band that sits just above it. He wanted the rim to frame the pure-blue view of the sky you get by looking straight up.

Volcanoes were an ideal form. The West had plenty of them. With $12,500 in gas money from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a helio courier biplane adapted for aerial photography and surveying, he spent more than six months flying from the Rockies to the Pacific, Canada to Mexico.

He located thousands of craters. Yet Roden became his first choice. The high desert outside Flagstaff has about 290 clear days a year. The crater, at an elevation close to 5,000 feet, sat out at the end of the San Francisco Peaks volcanic field, far from urban lights. And it was on private property, a 22,000-acre ranch owned by Robert Chambers, which had been placed in a trust for his three daughters in 1969.

Mary Malmgren, a Chambers daughter, joined her father for one of Turrell's early pitches and remembers her father asking afterward, "'What in the world is he going to do? What does he really want to do up there?' Jim showed us all these pictures he'd taken of a street corner where he lived in Los Angeles. It had a stoplight. And the pictures were of the light shining in his room. It was certainly something else. It was a whole new way of looking at art."

Ed McPherson, husband of another Chambers daughter, Helen, suspected the idea was a ruse. "I think I was convinced that he was actually involved with some secret deal going on with our government. I thought he must be looking for some site to do special tests for bombs or some such thing. It just didn't make sense to me to spend all that money just to figure out light."

Rita Gannon, the third sister, who along with her husband, Ed, still runs the Chambers ranch, adjacent to the crater, thought it was a nutty idea, and still does.

But she couldn't sway the others. "My sister Helen, who's rather ethereal, was the one who said that Turrell had flown all over the country and picked this crater out of all of them, so let's sell it to him."

At one point, perhaps to close the deal, Turrell flew Helen over the crater in his small plane. "He got me up there and he pops the door off," she says, "then he shuts off the motor."

The wind was howling through the tiny cabin. They were already flying low over the volcanoes surrounding Roden. Now they were just gliding. No place to land. "So I asked him, can you start it again? His answer: 'Usually.'"

Turrell found another friend in the Dia Art Foundation. Formed in 1974 to advance art projects like Turrell's that probably couldn't find support any other way, the New York foundation in 1975 agreed to acquire the crater. Dia leased it at first, then bought it in 1977 for about $65,000. The price worked out to the then-exorbitant rate of $100 an acre. At the time, land in the area wasn't selling for much more than $75 an acre; today's going rate is $300 an acre.

Dia (not an acronym, it means "through" in Greek) also began paying Turrell a monthly stipend to build his project. In 1982, Turrell established Skystone Foundation, a private nonprofit organization to raise funds and receive project gifts.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dia pumped more than $1 million into Roden Crater--then called the "Sun and Moon" project.

Then, in the early 1980s, the financial bottom fell out, when the world oil glut hammered oil stocks--a primary source of Dia's largess.

"The check didn't arrive one month--I think it was 1982 or 1983," says Turrell. So he called them up. No answer. He waited a week and called again. This time, there was no phone.

Dia's collapse put Turrell in a terrible bind. He was working out of a studio/office provided by the Museum of Northern Arizona. He was hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project, and, based on Dia's projected financial commitment, he had taken out substantial bank loans for construction equipment and other materials.

The investment had barely scratched the surface. In fact, Turrell's initial shaping of the rim hadn't worked the way he envisioned, so he'd had to re-sculpt it. He says Dia's exit forced him to sell much of his project equipment at a substantial loss.

The foundation's collapse also left ownership of the crater itself in a limbo that would take several years to sort out. Dia eventually donated the crater and its land to Skystone Foundation, so Turrell could continue the project.

But that ownership came with a price that Turrell hadn't anticipated. This was because of a simple fact of rangeland real estate: If you don't run cattle on your land, another rancher probably will.

The crater occupied rangeland that was checkerboarded with alternating square miles of state and private property. Unbeknownst to Turrell, the state squares came with grazing leases that could be used in conjunction with the adjacent private land. Neither Turrell nor Skystone held those leases. Another rancher did.

Turrell feared poor herd management would trash his vision for the crater and its surrounding viewshed. He didn't want the adjacent land to look appreciably different from the crater. Yet cattle were being allowed to congregate for extended periods around sources of water nearby. And the herds weren't being rotated among different pastures. The resulting overgrazing was deteriorating Roden's surroundings.

Turrell also saw his crater views being threatened by the spread of 40-acre homesteads--with trailer homes, junked vehicles, and piles of tires and trash.

To protect the project, he'd have to buy land, compete for grazing leases and ranch the property. From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, he built a ranch that stretches more than 150 square miles southwest from the crater. He piled up debt along the way.

Doug Ruppel, who managed Turrell's Walking Cane Ranch from 1992 until last year, says an old adage in ranching is that you can use land to pay for cattle or use cattle to pay for land. But you can't do both.

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.

"His point," Ruppel recalls, "was, 'I've been funding this dream for 20 years and I've nearly bankrupted myself in the process. So you can't, at this late date, separate just the portion you want to fund. That's only part of the vision.'"

Dia's Michael Govan says the ranch was a major sticking point.
"But all of the parties involved basically wanted the same thing. They wanted the land protected, preserved as much as possible within financial means around the artwork. Nobody had any disagreement about that. There were questions of how you do that."

Yet Govan also points out that none of the foundations, or Turrell for that matter, would be involved in this just for the ranching.

"I think that's accurate," says Kathleen Merrill, director of Lannan's art program. "One of the issues for us was Jim was personally financially involved in the ranch and because we're a foundation and we're funding a foundation-sponsored project, we had to make sure our funds were going to that."

She adds, "Had it been something we wanted to get into, there would have been a way to explore doing a nonprofit ranch. It's not that the idea was unappealing. It was that the situation was complicated."

Yet Lannan eventually did come through for the ranch. The compromise among the parties--largely funded by Lannan--called for Turrell to sell Skystone five square miles of ranch land and donate another five miles around the crater to the foundation. The approximately $690,000 Turrell received for the sale enabled him to pay off all of the ranch's land debts--more than $500,000.

Skystone became the builder and owner of the crater, allowing Turrell Trading to continue to ranch on most of the property it sold to the foundation.

Lannan agreed to bankroll most of the cost of the first round of construction.

And Dia agreed to raise an endowment to help Skystone operate and maintain Roden Crater.

The arrangement provided Turrell a fee--about $400,000-- that allowed him to curtail his extensive travels and worldwide commitments and concentrate on completing the architectural plans for the crater, something he had never been in a position to do.

No one from any of the organizations is willing to officially discuss the project's initial construction budget. But sources familiar with the partnership tell New Times that Lannan is committed to spending roughly $7 million on hard materials and another $2 million to $3 million on preliminary planning and construction administration. Between 1994 and 1997, Lannan poured slightly more than $1.6 million into the project and Skystone.

Dia's endowment is expected to be $1 million to $3 million.
"We're in the process of figuring out how the operations will work and what the revenues will be," says Govan.

A portion of those revenues, says Skystone's director, Nancy Taylor, will come from the $100 to $125 the foundation plans to charge overnight guests at the crater's 14-bed lodge. The cost of day visits will be $20 to $25.

There's little doubt in the art world that when the first phase of Roden Crater finally opens next year, it will become a must-see land work of the Southwest--part of the Arcosanti, Wupatki, Chaco and Grand Canyon tour for the visually literate.

When visitors rise up through its innards and look out at the sky, they aren't likely to know or care much about the hurdles Turrell cleared to get his mountain off the ground. Yet it won't be the first time.

Once when a major museum exhibition of Turrell's work was on the verge of being shut down over a dispute about whether Turrell or the electrical unions should handle lights he had made for his installations, a curator took him aside and whispered, "James, you know, nobody cares about how difficult it is for you to do your work. They just want to see it."

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: elebow@newtimes.com

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...