Making Art a Big Deal

Even eccentric artist Christo followed the mundane laws of economics when it came to picking suppliers for his orange-draped Gates

By Burt Helm

For the very essence of the eccentric, manic, pretentious artiste, many look no further than Christo. He works 17 hours a day. He snacks on whole cloves of garlic. He refuses to speak to the press, and he has no last name.

Most recently, he and wife Jeanne-Claude (also no last name), have spent over $22 million on "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," an installation of 7,500 16-foot high orange gates that line the pathways of Manhattan's fabled Central Park. The installation, which opened Feb. 12, drew over 1 million visitors in its first four days, according to the Central Park Conservancy.


  But, wait! The posts of those gates look awfully familiar. In fact, they look a lot like the square posts that hold up the giant, illuminated "Slow Down" signs on roadside construction sites -- including one at the 72nd Street entrance to Central Park, just yards from where the Gates begin.

The mere question, when asked of "The Gates" press office, inspired derision. The shape, size, and color of the Gates are the way they are "because that's the way the artists envisioned them!" snips Harrison Rivera-Terreaux, an old friend of the Christo, who was fielding press calls Friday. "It has nothing to do with manufacturing or anything like that."

Well, it's true the posts that make up the Gates are not the same ones used by county and city engineers on road- and bridge-improvement projects. But how and why they came to look the way they do is as much about the mundane task of ordering PVC gate posts as it is about the artistic vision to gate one of the world's most beautiful urban parks.


  Turns out the specs of this unique job are quite run of the mill -- although they initially struck the manufacturers as a bit mysterious. Each got a similar call "out of the blue" roughly two years ago. "I have no idea how they found us," says J.P. Braaten, vice-president of business development for North American Profile Group, a subsidiary of Westlake Chemical (WLK ), which constructed the gate posts in Holmes, N.Y.

Once they did, the artists decided they wanted 5-inch by 5-inch vinyl gate posts. It's the same material used for PVC piping and is an industry standard for ranch-railing used to fence in cattle out West. The fabric is rip-stop nylon from German textile manufacturer Stephan Schilgen. The steel bases are a made from a type of plate that International Steel Group (ISG ) "rolls all the time" says Larry Pacana, customer-service manager of ISG. "This is just an unusual application."

The specs and choice of manufacturers sound oddly pragmatic for a couple that once covered an 18-square-mile area north of Los Angeles with thousands of jumbo umbrellas. Enter Vince Davenport, the chief engineer and director of construction for the Gates.


  Davenport, a former general contractor who began working for the Christos in 1989, acts as a liaison between the companies and the couple and develops and tests the final specs. After the Christos give him an initial idea of what they would like to do, he goes to work building a prototype and hammering out deals with suppliers and contractors.

For instance, the 5-inch by 5-inch vinyl posts were chosen because they would be sturdy enough to stand 16 feet, and Davenport tested a prototype in a wind tunnel to make sure. He adds that "for aesthetic reasons," the 5-inch pipe was also more appealing than a 4-inch pipe -- the other standard model offered by Westlake Chemical's fencing division. "It fit our program really well," says American Profile's Braaten.

The special saffron hue required a color lab's involvement, but "was derived from my every-day formulation," says Braaten, "it was a run-of-the-mill color match."


  Do the Christos mind that the materials behind their creation are so, how you say, plebeian? Quite the contrary. In the summer 2003, the Christos paid a special visit with their personal photographer, as well as Davenport and his wife (who's the program director), to the Coatesville (Pa.) steel mill where the Gates bases were under construction.

"They were like kids at Christmas time," says Pacana. "They really wanted to get into the detail -- they wanted to meet the table operator who worked the controls, very nice people."

And as it turns out, even artists are subject to the laws of economics. The reason the Gates project gave these lucky companies the surprise call? Cheap trucking costs.

"I hate to say this," says Davenport. "But I used the Thomas Register [a directory] to start with and picked 8 to 10 companies." He then checked prices, made sure he felt confident the outfits he chose could do the job, and then drove out to visit to see "how close it was" to New York.


  It was an unexpected windfall for ISG, which was Bethlehem Steel until going bankrupt. It says the amount of steel -- 5,000 tons -- matched orders for shipbuilding and some bridges. But bridge and shipbuilders "don't order it all at once!" says Pacana. For Charles C. Lewis Co., a Springfield (Mass.) steel processor that fabricated the bases using ISG's raw steel, "it was the biggest order we have ever received," says Executive Vice-President Jack Corrigan.

For some of the companies, this isn't their first venture into high-concept art installations. ISG also manufactured work for artist and sculptor Richard Serra and helped with his installation in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

For others, like Charles C. Lewis Co., it was a first. "We did flame-cut a couple of pieces of metal for a statue of Mr. Lowell, who founded Lowell, Mass.," says Corrigan. "But as far as the art world, that's about it." And when you're doing an art project as large as Central Park, sometimes you have to get downright ordinary to get it done.

Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Beth Belton

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