Thursday, March 08, 2001

Dispute over art is carved in stone

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        GREENHILLS — For more than two decades a handful of residents in this tiny village, and now its historical society, have been waging a quiet campaign in a dispute with the Dayton Art Institute over two enormous sculptures that were produced during the Depression and destined to be displayed in the village.

        The plot has been imbued with both mystery and a sense of history.

[photo] Limestone sculture of a man and a dog by Seth Velsey
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        It involves a question of ownership of two sculptures commissioned by the federal government's Works Projects Administration in 1938 and intended to be displayed outdoors in Greenhills.

        Over the years, the campaign has involved two congressmen and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). It is now in the lap of the U.S. Justice Department.

        But the nerve center for this campaign is far from Washington D.C. — it resides in the kitchen of a Greenhills resident who is leading the fight for the Greenhills Historical Society.

        “The statues belong in Greenhills,” says Betty Senior, who has spread photographs, documents and letters from a thick file across her kitchen table. “We've been waiting ever since 1942 to get our statues. They don't mean anything to Dayton other than a piece of art work. But to us they're part of our heritage.”

        The sculptures, carved from limestone, depict a man with a dog at his feet, and a man sitting with a child. Sculpted by Dayton artist Seth Velsey, they never made it to Greenhills. Instead, they were stored for years in a stoneyard before finally being moved a half-century ago to the Dayton Art Institute.

[photo] A second Velsey piece, a man and a boy.
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        Greenhills wants them, but the Dayton art museum says it owns them. The GSA says the statues belong to the federal government. And U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, says the statues belong in Greenhills. He has asked U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Justice Department for help in resolving the dispute.

        Alex Nyerges, director and CEO of the Dayton museum, said there is no clear record that the commission between the WPA and Mr. Velsey was ever consummated.

        “What happened between 1938 and 1950 is the unanswered question,” said Mr. Nyerges. Mr. Velsey died in the 1970s.

Claims heard in '76

        Greenhills is an unusual suburban community, built and owned by the federal government in 1938 as both a greenbelt community and to provide affordable rental housing for people of modest incomes.

        That same year the WPA commissioned artists to paint murals for the village's community building and commissioned Mr. Velsey to turn three huge blocks of limestone into sculptures.

        Mr. Velsey completed two pieces in 1942, but inexplicably they never made it out of the stoneyard in Dayton where they were sculpted. In 1950, the artist gave them to the art institute.

        A quarter-century passed with nary a whisper about the art work. Then, in 1976, the art institute began hearing from Greenhills residents who claimed the statues belonged in the village.

        On the 50th anniversary of the founding of Greenhills in 1988, U.S. Rep. Tom Luken began asking the GSA to have the statues brought to Greenhills, where “they should rightfully be displayed.”

        The GSA takes the position that the art work belongs to the federal government, that it wasn't Mr. Velsey's to give.

        That is what Mr. Chabot is asking the Justice Department to help resolve.

        “The statues were originally created for display in the village of Greenhills and they should be placed in a location for area residents to enjoy,” said Mr. Chabot.

        Mr. Nyerges says he is sympathetic to Greenhills, but there is no documentation that the owner of the work is other than Mr. Velsey. And Mr. Velsey gave the work to the museum.

Questions persist

        While it is plausible that the artist may have been commissioned to do the work, he said, no records exist that he was ever paid. Indeed, Mr. Nyerges asks, why did the sculptures languish in a stoneyard for eight years?

        Did the commission go awry? Mr. Nyerges wonders. “What they can't explain is that the sculpture sat in a quarry,” he added. “I certainly don't have an answer. There's an issue here of what happened that we're all in the dark about.

        “But the sculptures are gorgeous. They're wonderful examples of 1930-era sculpture that is a great example of regionalism in monumental sculpture. They're bold, they're dynamic.”

        Ms. Senior said they have already gotten estimates on the cost of loading the 14 tons of sculpture onto flatbed trucks and hauling them down to Greenhills — between $11,500 and $15,000. The village council supports their efforts. They even have designated the grassy commons off Farragut Road for display.

        “They came with our village,” said Ms. Senior. “The commons is where those statues should be.”


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