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Control of iconic sculpture Spiral Jetty in dispute

Published June 9, 2011 9:58 am

The Dia Foundation may have failed to renew its lease.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On Tuesday, the state of Utah had become the owner of one of the world's iconic earthwork masterpieces, the Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson.

But by late Wednesday, the status of the massive art work created in 1970 and previously managed by a New York art foundation, was "in flux," according to a Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands spokesman.

According to division officials, the New York-based Dia Foundation that was given control of the Spiral Jetty by the Smithson estate had been tardy in making its annual $250 payment on the 10 acres of land that's periodically submerged by the waters of the Great Salt Lake. Worse, Dia had also failed to respond to the state's automatically generated notice in February that its 20-year lease on the lake bed had run out, said division spokesman Jason Curry.

On Tuesday morning, Curry said, "the notification went out that the lease will not be continued and the land will be managed like any other sovereign land." Other of the state's sovereign lands include the beds of navigable lakes and rivers.

It would be up to the discretion of the director of division whether the land would be available for lease in the future, he said. And even if the parcel were made available, Dia would have no advantage over other bidders. "If somebody wants to apply for the land, it would be looked at just as any other piece would be," Curry said.

Dia deputy director Laura Raicovich was shocked Wednesday when The Tribune informed her that continuation of the lease had been denied. She said she wasn't aware of any lease termination notices. Raicovich declined to comment on the issue until Dia had a chance to communicate with the division.

Under Utah's standard lease agreement, Dia would have 90 days to remove "any improvements" on the land. According to that wording, "improvements" presumably would include the 1,500-foot-long basalt-rock jetty that draws visitors from around the globe.

The Spiral Jetty would continue to be protected as state land and the public access would remain the same, Curry said. "Dia's not holding the lease is not going to change anything regarding the Spiral Jetty."

The Utah Department of Natural Resources received thousands of emails in 2008 protesting an oil company proposal to conduct exploratory drilling near the Spiral Jetty. Curry said he couldn't speculate whether Dia's loss of the lease would affect its standing in such protests in the future.

The DNR's abrupt action seems unusual, said Joro Walker, a Salt Lake-based senior attorney for the Western Resources Advocates. "Typically when somebody is occupying sovereign land, they get their leases renewed," she said, noting that the state is charged with managing the land in the public trust. "I think the people of Utah consider the Spiral Jetty to be an icon."

Refusing to renew any lease on the lake usually doesn't occur without good reasons and possibly a public process, Walker said, and such a refusal would be unheard of if the land were leased by a mineral-extraction company.

"Why change it when Dia takes good care of the land and the jetty? [Dia] is spending their resources to protect it, and they are paying [lease payments] into the state coffers. It seems like a completely appropriate arrangement that benefits the people of Utah."

Wednesday afternoon, Curry acknowledged that the division had heard from Dia officials who argued that Dia had been negotiating an agreement with former Sovereign Lands Coordinator Dave Grierson, who died in April 2010. The division, he said, is trying to uncover any correspondence between Grierson and Dia.

"I don't have any idea which way it will go at this point," Curry said. "But we will do our best to work with Dia."

Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Tammy Kikuchi said she was surprised at the interest in the Spiral Jetty's status "because few people in Utah have visited it."

Curry added: "It's a matter of perception. To the Dia and the landform art world, the Spiral Jetty is a big deal. But in the larger scheme of sovereign lands management, it's only one component."

Ironically, a photo of the Spiral Jetty adorns the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands website at http://www.ffsl.utah.gov/ffsl.htm.

gwarchol@sltrib.com

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Own a piece of iconic rock art

O If the lease on the Spiral Jetty goes up for bid, you can get more information online > http://www.ffsl.utah.gov/sovlands/leases/leaseinfo.php