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Mass MoCA to dismantle disputed show

Days after winning permission to show a costly, immense, and unfinished installation in its signature gallery space, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art decided Tuesday to dismantle the work without opening it to the public.

Instead, over the next five weeks, Mass MoCA will remove what would have been Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s first major American museum exhibition, a sprawling work that required bringing an oil tanker, a smashed police car, and a two-story house into the North Adams museum’s football field-sized Building 5.

“We explored a range of options, but at the end of the day, we really want to move forward,” said Mass MoCA’s director Joseph Thompson. “It’s been 10 months of misery, and we really are looking forward to making a new piece of art.”

In a statement, Büchel's attorney, Donn Zaretsky, said he was "pleased" with the outcome, which follows a lengthy dispute over the project's budget and scope, and whether Mass MoCA could legally open it even though the artist said it wasn't finished.

“This is the right decision for my client, for the cause of artistic freedom, and even for the museum itself," the statement said.

Buchel, who has rarely spoken to the press, sent an e-mail to the Globe Tuesday night in response to the museum's move. Pointedly referencing his dispute with Mass MoCA over the project's budget, he offered to donate a "permanent installation" that wouldn't cost anything to pull off.

He concluded the email with an image of the plan -- a tweak of the museum's rooftop signage to spell out "Mass CoMA."

On Monday, Büchel appealed last week’s decision by a federal judge allowing Mass MoCA to open the installation, titled “Training Ground for Democracy.” Zaretsky did not say whether Büchel will drop that appeal, which seeks monetary damages from the museum.

Mass MoCA will immediately begin removing the scores of objects that comprised the work. Thompson estimated that removing the pieces will cost up to $40,000, bringing the total bill for the unfinished creation to nearly $400,000.

But the Büchel debacle has cost Mass MoCA more than money. The museum’s lawsuit, filed in May, brought a strong rebuke from art critics. The museum was also criticized for installing a hastily-staged exhibition, "Made at Mass MoCA," which it said was meant to show how it collaborates with artists but also allowed visitors to walk past the unfinished Büchel. Tarps partially covered the raw materials that were to make up the complete show.

Earlier this summer, Boston Globe art critic Ken Johnson called Mass MoCA’s handling of the dispute “sad, dumb, and shameful.'' This month, New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote: “When a museum behaves badly, it’s never pretty. But few examples top the depressing spectacle at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.”

Büchel's international reputation rests on oversized, politically-oriented pieces. Last year the artist began installing "Training Ground” -- meant, in part, to evoke both a ghost town and a wartime village -- with an opening planned for December. Behind schedule, Mass MoCA

delayed the show and the artist left.

When the museum told Büchel that it had run out of money for the project, which it said was originally budgeted at $160,000, Büchel grew angry, and said that he wouldn’t return until a series of demands were met. Büchel never returned, and in May, Mass MoCA canceled the show and sued to allow it to choose whether the elements could be displayed.

Last Friday, federal Judge Michael Ponsor sided with Mass MoCA, and denied Büchel’s request for an injunction to stop the museum from letting the public into the installation. In addition, Ponsor said that because "Training Ground” was unfinished, it was not protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, as Büchel’s attorneys had argued.

Though the court granted Mass MoCA permission to show the material, some art-world figures said the museum was taking heat for its bare-knuckles approach.

“I think the pressure was being applied to them,” said Mark Bessire, director of the Bates College Museum of Art, who praised the museum for "taking the high road.''

Bessire described Thompson, Mass MoCA's director since 1999, as "pretty tough,'' but predicted that ''it’ll be tough to take the risks they have in the past consistently after this.”

Thompson said he doesn’t plan to change the museum’s approach to large-scale installations, which are increasingly popular in the art world.

“I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. "Our track record speaks for itself. I think that this case already is supersaturated with tragedy. We don’t need to add another one to it, which is to paper over the way we deal with artists, which is as direct and

unmediated and straightforward as we can.”

Since Friday's decision, Thompson said he spoke with about half a dozen people to sound out his options, including Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. Though he spoke with Mass MoCA’s trustees, the decision to dismantle was his alone, he said. One factor, he said, was time and logistics. The museum plans to open a Jenny Holzer exhibition in the space Nov. 17. Holzer is well-known for text-based works that make use

of electronic technology.

In addition, Thompson considered the wishes of Büchel. “Christoph’s own views on the matter did have weight with me,” Thompson said.

A week ago, Mass MoCA took down the tarps at the judge's request so he could walk through the gallery. The space has been closed since then. Thompson said some elements of “Training Ground” will have to be trashed, including the house, more than two miles of cinderblock, and a former movie theater, taken apart and rebuilt inside the space.

But other material purchased or collected for the show will not be discarded, though it won’t be displayed as art, or sold at any point, Thompson said.

“Many of the objects were donated by local community members form their households,” said Thompson. “Others are perfectly usable things that it would be a shame to throw away. We would find good places for those. Clothes, stretches, beds, file cabinets. In some ways, what we have left is a vast recycling effort.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more on the arts go to boston.com/ae/ theater_arts/ exhibitionist.

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