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Fort Wayne Museum of Art preparing for return of 'Helmholtz' sculpture

The controversial piece had to be repaired after being hit by a vehicle in June 2013

Thursday, August 14, 2014 - 12:01 am

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art will celebrate the return of its bright, reddish-orange "Helmholtz" sculpture with — what else — a selfie contest.

Cameras and phones could start snapping photos soon: The abstract depiction of a bull tentatively is scheduled to return in early September to its grassy space in Freimann Square, just west of the Arts United Center in downtown Fort Wayne.

The controversial sculpture, which is made largely of steel I-beams, has stood in front of or beside the Arts United Center since 1986. It sustained damaged in June 2013 when hit by a pickup driven by a man later charged with drunken driving.

While detractors suggested selling the damaged piece for scrap metal, museum staff worked to get it repaired by its creator, world-renowned sculptor Mark di Suvero, who agreed to the task. It was taken apart in August 2013 and shipped to his studio in California.

"For a long time, we couldn't get confirmation of when it would be ready," said Amanda Martin, museum deputy director for administration and communications. Everything recently came together to bring it home.

Workers from Hagerman Group worked Wednesday to install new concrete pads to support the front legs of the 8-ton, 21-foot-tall sculpture. The museum had to have two new concrete pads installed because di Suvero decided to change the angle of the bull's left front leg slightly during repair, which meant it no longer fit on the existing front leg pads, said Charles A. Shepard III, art museum executive director.

"Mark always works free-hand," and he repaired the sculpture free-hand rather than using precise original drawings or computer technology, Shepard said.

The artist also wanted the front legs to be attached to their concrete pads by welding the legs to a steel plate embedded in the pad, Shepard said. The rear portion of the sculpture still will rest on the existing, rectangular-shaped concrete pad.

The work, which costs $33,000, will be covered by insurance, Shepard said. No tax dollars are involved.

Ironically, Shepard believes the accident and repair likely increased the value of the sculpture. If di Suvero had just repaired it exactly as it was, the value would remain what it was — about $1 million to $1.5 million, he said. Because di Suvero changed the sculpture slightly, it could be worth as much as $2 million.

"He added another artist touch, which adds value," Shepard said.

"Helmholz" will be shipped here in pieces and reassembled with the help of a crane and two members of di Suvero's staff, including his No. 1 welder, Shepard said.

Shepard also hopes to get Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department approval to place large limestone blocks in front of the sculpture to prevent vehicles from hitting it. The blocks, which the museum uses in other spots around its building, are about 18 inches tall and also can be used for seating.

Along with celebrating the return of "Helmholtz," the museum also hopes to use this opportunity to educate people about the sculpture and abstract art, Martin said.

In addition to the selfie contest, tentative plans include Shepard offering a presentation on "Helmholtz" and di Suvero, as well as a walking tour to see the museum's other sculptures, Martin said. The museum likely also will offer free admission on a day just after the sculpture is re-installed.