PIE TOWN, N.M. (KRQE) - It’s a bizarre government project, a quiet back-room deal that’s costing taxpayers a ton of money.
A project, so obscure it sailed through a legislative spending bill four years ago, unnoticed, sandwiched between rural water systems and school construction.
Five hundred thousand dollars set aside for an art preservation project in Catron County.
Welcome to the Lightning Field, or as it’s technically called, the Quemado Basin Conservation Easement which covers 5,400 acres north of Pie Town.
The avant-garde art project created 34 years ago by New York sculptor Walter De Maria displays 400 stainless steel poles evenly spaced in a grid pattern a mile wide.
This unique sculpture is located on the western New Mexico prairie, some 15 miles from civilization, but it’s not for everybody.
State Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson tells News 13 that the field is not something the department promotes.
“We have so many treasures here in New Mexico and this is not one that we have actively chosen to promote,” Jacobson said.
Still, promoted or not, for most tourists, the privately funded Lightning Field is off limits.
The artistic creation is owned by the New York based DIA Art Foundation and access is by reservation only and limited to just 1100 visitors a year. And if you’re one of the lucky ones, be ready to shell out $250 for admission. Thinking of snapping a few photos as keepsakes? Forget it. The foundation prohibits all photography.
Visitors enjoy a 24 hour overnight stay in a rustic cabin and from here art connoisseurs enjoy the vast forest of stainless steel poles set against a backdrop of clear blue sky.
Chair of the University of New Mexico’s Art History Department, Professor Kirsten Buick, explains that the display is meant to be more than just art but also an experience.
"It is a work of art because we go there with the intention of experiencing something that is amazing and beautiful and profound,” Buick says.
This experience is dependent upon the pristine environment, which is why its home is, in fact on the range, in the wide open spaces. A Walmart Supercenter or cluster of condos in the background simply would not do. So just how does the New York art foundation guarantee an unspoiled view of its stainless steel rods? They found a partner with deep pockets, and in this case that partner is the taxpayers of New Mexico.
Just how does this work? A Pie Town rancher owns the cattle range adjacent to the Lightning Field and in order to protect the view, state legislators handed the cattle baron $500,000 in exchange for his agreement not to develop the land. A stipulation of the deal? No public access.
So thanks to the foundation’s partners, New Mexico taxpayers, a handful of private art patrons can be assured of an artistic experience that includes stainless steel poles against a backdrop of nothing more than blue sky. Which sounds nice, except for one big problem: any state expenditure must be for a public purpose and benefit and there’s nothing public about the Lightning Field.
“It’s extremely unusual that we would purchase a conservation easement just to protect a privately held piece of art, on a private piece of property,” said Cultural Affairs Cabinet Secretary Veronica Gonzales.
When asked if she thought the half million dollars was well spent, Gonzales said no.
State Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro, who serves Catron County said he did not see how this pricey project benefited his constituents.
"The project kind of appeared in the capital bill in the 11th hour. It was the Governor's project and I had no prior knowledge to it,” Tripp said.
So how did this taxpayer money end up being used to fund such a project? That’s where former Gov. Bill Richardson comes in.
After Richardson was approached by the DIA Art Foundation, the then governor secretly slipped the $500,000 appropriation into the 2007 bill disguising it as “art preservation.”
Lawmakers approved the project without any question or debate; the money was then used by Museum of New Mexico officials to buy the half million dollar art preservation
Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, explained that it was within Richardson’s budgeted allocation for capital outlay, which is why it wasn’t questioned any further.
Former Cultural Affairs Secretary Stuart Ashman inked the deal in 2008 and now Richardson’s out of office, the money’s gone, but the Lightning Field view is protected forever.
"If we could spend money on what people need to live and survive, the water systems, clean water systems, I think its a travesty to spend it this way,” Tripp told News 13.
"Oftentimes in the Legislature the money is perceived as ours and not taxpayer dollars, but if we can communicate the fact that we're spending taxpayers dollars up here, sort of lost in the process, then hopefully we will be as responsible, as if we were spending our own individual dollars in our household,” Smith said.
The DIA Art Foundation did not respond to News