"A place to sit in the shade with a view of the river." That's how architect Michael Nius conceived his creation A Stage for Viewing when it was erected along the river bank on The Fly through a 1994 public arts contest sponsored by the Arts Council and the Audubon Institute. The view of the river remains, but the shade has vanished. A Stage for Viewing has been without a roof since its original one was destroyed in Hurricane Georges in October 1998 -- a situation that has created frustration among its creators and confusion among its administrators.
The tandem of architect Michael Nius and artist Steven Kline, A Stage for Viewing is cited in its blueprints as a recreational enhancement tool for Audubon Park. Nius, who runs his own architecture firm and teaches design courses at Tulane University, says a member of the competition committee originally told him the project was selected in part because it offered "the most bang for the buck." Constructed within its $85,000 budget funded by the city's "One Percent for Art" bond issue, A Stage for Viewing has been used as a multi-faceted harbor for activities ranging from family picnics on Easter Sunday to rave-like gatherings of Gen Xers.
Nius adds that the contract for the project stated the roofing was "temporal." He says that estimates in the contract projected a replacement needed every three to five years for a cost of less than 5 percent of the $85,000 total (less than $3,000). When the canvas roofing was destroyed by Georges, Nius says he immediately wrote a letter to administrators at Audubon and the Arts Council stating the roof needed to be replaced. He says that Bob Becker, then operations director of the Audubon Institute, promised a new roof. This affirmation, he says, was confirmed by Lake Douglas, then assistant director for Arts Council, with a new roof promised "within a month."
Becker, now CEO of City Park, confirms a new roof was ordered. Lake Douglas could not be reached for comment. Attempts to reach Audubon Institute President/CEO Ron Forman for comment were also unsuccessful.
"I've had numerous conversations with people at both the Arts Council and at Audubon, but this has dragged on for too long," Nius says. "I've got other things to do, but it still bothers me on the level of it now being a public usage issue. The pavilion has lost its function, and I still haven't gotten any explanation."
Kline shares Nius' befuddlement. No stranger to public art projects, Kline's city-funded work includes "Serpent Mound," a steel piece on Jefferson Davis Parkway, and "Confetti Park" in Algiers Point. "It's frustrating," Kline says. "Audubon seems to want to ignore their own park."
Kline says that during the 18 months it took to construct A Stage for Viewing, he and Nius modified its initial designs from a complex metal roof, which he and Nius determined would run the project over budget, to the canvas roof. He says the competition committee approved the canvas roof with an understanding that the Audubon Institute would replace the roof when needed.
"It's my take that the Audubon people don't care that much about this project," Kline says. "We didn't get that much cooperation from the beginning -- their attitude seemed to be, 'This is your project, go do your own thing.' However, Mike and I were under the impression that a replacement roof was ordered and made from North Sails, the makers of the original, after the first one was destroyed. But I can't say what that led to. Nobody seems to know what's going on."
Al Gooch, president of North Sails, a sail manufacturer located in Bucktown, confirms that a new sail was ordered as a replacement. Gooch says his records show that the company received an order by the Audubon Institute for the replacement sail in August 1999. He says the completed sail was ready Aug. 27, 1999, and paid for by check for $2,635.
"It was made, it was paid for, and it's gone," Gooch says. "So I assume it's been picked up."
Mary Len Costa, an associate with the Arts Council, is also under this assumption. Costa says the contest and contract both took place before her arrival at the Arts Council, but she became involved in the issue when she responded to a letter written by Nius inquiring about the status of the replacement roof. In the letter, dated May 17, 1999, Costa writes: "I spoke with Bob Becker, operations director of the Audubon Zoo, just this morning. He assures me that the canvas roofing that was heavily damaged during Hurricane Georges will be replaced in the very near future."
Costa says she last spoke with Becker earlier this spring, when she was "under the impression that everything is under control." She explains that the delay could be attributed to changes in personnel and to the Audubon's resources and time being taken up by projects such as the new entrance to the zoo.
Becker left Audubon earlier this summer to take the helm of City Park. Though now removed from the issue, he asserts that the replacement sail is being taken care of. "The problem stems from the fact that it is very expensive to replace that roof," Becker says. "We -- rather, they -- have the canvas. It is finally secured and paid for."
So where is the roof now? Becker says that he is not currently aware of its location or who at Audubon is currently charged with overseeing its maintenance. Audubon Institute spokeswoman Melissa Lee says she was unable to find anyone familiar enough with A Stage for Viewing to provide comment.