Many cities boast a single, iconic public artwork—a sculpture, like the St. Louis Gateway Arch, that is intrinsically identified with that place. In Fort Worth, Texas, that piece was once Eagle, a 39-foot-tall, origami-like steel sculpture by Alexander Calder that stood for some 30 years downtown, in front of the Fort Worth National Bank.

But although many in Fort Worth identified the Calder as a symbol of the city, it turns out the piece was privately owned. The bank commissioned it in the early 1970s, shortly before the artist’s death. When the bank was sold, so too was the sculpture. In 1999, with little fanfare, Eagle was auctioned off to the highest bidder and dismantled in an afternoon. It had a brief stay in Philadelphia and is now part of the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

Eagle’s disappearance sparked (in addition to innumerable puns on the “flight of the Eagle”) a heated debate in the city about just who owns public art anyway. Many residents, including local newspaper commentators, considered the artwork “stolen,” according to Mark Thistlethwaite, an art historian at Texas Christian University’s School of Art, and author of a research paper on the Calder.

“It was a wake-up call to the community that we can’t count on the private sector to give us public art that will stay ours,” says Martha Peters, who heads the city’s public art program. That program, which is funded in part by a two-percent-for-art policy, was part of the wake-up; the sale of the Calder, Thistlethwaite writes, contributed momentum to the city’s drive for an official public art program.

Earlier this year, 15 years after Eagle’s removal, the sculpture made a comeback of sorts—as a pop-up, inflatable piece constructed by the artist collective Homecoming! Committee. In February 2014, the artists inflated the tongue-in-cheek replica, titled The Eagle Has Landed, in eight locations, spreading the word through social media. “We thought a good-natured, comedic re-creation was in order,” says Devon Nowlin, one of the founders of Homecoming! “People from a really broad range stopped and talked to us. It’s amazing that [15] years after the fact, those who remember the sculpture still have very strong feelings about it one way or the other.”

Nowlin and her colleagues hoped to reignite the debate over who owns public art—and to make a plea for a new, iconic sculpture to represent Fort Worth. As it happens, Peters reports that the city has begun conversations (inspired in part by the success of Chicago’s Millennium Park) to create such an icon. Ironically, it will have to rely in part on private funding to do so. “Percent-for-art programs are tied to projects, so you don’t always have the option of doing something big,” she explains.

This need for private funding, however, speaks to the true complexity of the conversation about who pays for, and who owns, public art. Nowlin, for one, says the experience of running The Eagle Has Landed changed her understanding of these dynamics. “I began the project thinking that the fact that the Calder was privately owned was the problem,” she says. “But I came to the realization that there’s a limit to what a city-funded program can provide us. They have a certain responsibility to the public that doesn’t always translate to taking risks. In 1974, that risk was the Calder.”

Joe Hart is senior editor of Public Art Review.

Featured in Public Art Review #46.
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