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Q & A with artist Christo about the proposed “Over the River” project

Since its conception in 1992, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s proposal to hang fabric panels over 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River through Bighorn Canyon, between Salida and Cañon City, Over the River, has brought controversy, passionate opposition, philosophical questions about the nature of art, and studies – many studies – by various state and federal agencies, over the suitability of such a large-scale project in the chosen setting, scheduled to be exhibited for two weeks in the summer of 2013.

Artist Christo. Photo by Mike Rosso

Many of the lingering questions and concerns will be answered on July 15 when the Bureau of Land Management releases its Environmental Impact Statement for the project followed by a 45-day public comment period.

In late June, Colorado Central Magazine was offered the opportunity to interview Christo. We decided, instead, to ask community members to pose their own questions and concerns. Here is what they came up with.

Bob Hamel, chairman of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, owner/operator of Arkansas River Tours, Cotopaxi: As the project is slated for the first two weeks in August, which overlaps our busiest season, would you consider delaying it to the last two weeks of August to take advantage of the usually slower time for the rafting industry?

Christo: This work of art is meant to be viewed from both the highway and the river and we have been working with rafting community. We have had meetings and conversations with them, and as a result we changed our proposed exhibition timing to any two consecutive weeks in August, provided any issues with school bus traffic are addressed. We understand that the Arkansas River Outfitters Association would like this work of art to be exhibited the second and third weeks of August. We have no problem with that but the decision will not be made by us. The decision will be made by the BLM so we hope the rafting community will tell the BLM during the public comment period when they would like this work of art to be exhibited.

Greg Felt, owner, ArkAnglers, Salida: The Arkansas River has become a regional fly-fishing destination due to the dedicated marketing efforts of a few fishing outfitters. Surveys indicate out-of-valley anglers will avoid the Arkansas during the three years of this project. How will you mitigate the direct negative economic impact to these businesses and what will you do to assist in re-invigorating marketing of the fishery after the project is complete?

Christo: Why would fly fisherman avoid the Arkansas River for three years? Summer is when a lot of fishing occurs and most fishermen stay on the highway side. We will not do any work on the highway side of the river during the summer months. In the other months when we are working on the highway side installing the anchors, the work will take place fairly far from the water and will be done by two small crews over the entire 42 miles. That won’t interfere with their fishing. Installing the cable and fabric will take place over just a few months and only involve 5.9 miles of the 42 mile stretch of river – that’s less than 15 percent of the canyon – leaving 36.1 miles of the river totally untouched by the project. When Jeanne-Claude and I were selecting the fabric panel locations for Over The River, we asked for input from the fly-fishing community, and we specifically avoided placing fabric panels in the most popular fishing areas so that we would have as little impact as possible. I do not think fly fisherman, when they learn this, will stay away for three years.

Chuck Rose, Mayor of Salida: Could you offer more specifics regarding access to emergency services that are of concern to residents in Bighorn Sheep Canyon?

Christo: Providing a safe and accessible environment is one of our top priorities. That is why we have worked with local authorities, including fire departments, to develop a plan for emergencies, including a wildfire. Our proposal recommends putting fire fighting equipment and emergency vehicles and personnel at several locations in the canyon so they will be able to respond quickly to an emergency. We have offered to stage a helicopter at Texas Creek to provide quick emergency response, and we have offered to provide communications equipment so that all the fire departments and emergency personnel in the corridor can communicate with each other. These discussions with local authorities will continue, but the final decision on all mitigation measures will be made by BLM.

Chuck Rose: Can you name any long-term benefits to the communities of the area after the project has been completed and removed?

Christo: All of the works of art that Jeanne-Claude and I have created leave a lasting memory of joy and beauty and we believe Over The River will be no exception. For years to come, people will see the photographs and the documentary film that is being prepared about the project. Visitors from around the world will see the beauty of Colorado and that could certainly provide a long-term tourism benefit. In fact, Jeanne-Claude and I have often heard that people will continue to go back to the sites of our previous projects many years after they are completed, just to see where the work of art once took place.

Bob Hamel: Have you made any attempt to involve the Cotopaxi School District in the project?

Christo: As Jeanne-Claude and I have done with previous projects, we work with the local schools to make this an educational opportunity for their students. There is much the students can learn about art, math, engineering, the environment and other subjects. Our team has been in contact with several local art teachers to brief them on Over The River, and we recently provided the Cotopaxi School with a set of DVD documentaries about our previous projects so that the teachers can use them in their classes. We will work with all the school districts, including Cotopaxi, so their students can benefit from this art experience. For example, during The Gates in Central Park in 2005, many thousands of students visited the project site as part of their educational field trips.

Mel Strawn, Salida artist and educator: What is your view on the current TV ads featuring large orange curtains draped over monuments and half a city – and disclaiming any connection to Christo and Jeanne-Claude?

Christo: Jeanne-Claude and I have no direct or indirect affiliation or involvement with AT&T. On the Over The River website,, there is a letter from AT&T that says this. It also clarifies that neither Jeanne-Claude or I, nor any business entity of ours, has been or will be paid any compensation of any kind in connection with AT&T’s advertisements.

Don Jackson, owner, Super 8 Motel, Salida: First of all please allow me to apologize for some of the harsh comments you have received regarding the Over the River project. Art is in the eye of the beholder. I do not enjoy all art, which is just the way it should be. Art is completely subjective and I do not expect you to like what I like and vice versa. To quote an often used phrase, “I do not know art but I know what I like.” I am impressed with your comments about the approval process, the questions and answers being a part of the creative process. In fact we are all artists participating in your process.

I am in the lodging industry. I believe that your project will attract many new visitors to our area exposing the beauty of our county to many people who have not previously experienced it first hand.

Enough said, here are my questions:

When considering the selection of a site do you consider the demographics of your fan base and potential visitors as to the suitability of a project? Do you anticipate bringing many first time visitors to the area?

Christo: Jeanne-Claude and I want our works of art to be in areas that are lived in, that have a lot of human activity, but we don’t consider a potential fan base when deciding where to locate our temporary works of art. One of the reasons we chose the Arkansas River in Colorado was because it has a major highway and railroad next to it and there are lots of towns along the way. And of course we hope that there there will be many new visitors to the area – and this has certainly been the case with all our previous projects.

Don Jackson: Did you anticipate this amount of opposition when you decided on the OTR Project?

Christo: Every one of the works of art that Jeanne-Claude and I have created have supporters and opponents – that is part of the art! Our works of art inspire people and bring them together to think and talk about art. Our art is unique because it is not like a painting or a sculpture – it is being discussed and debated even before it has been created. This dialogue about the meaning and purpose of art brings energy to this process and is absolutely part of the work of art.

Don Jackson: How does the amount of opposition compare with your previous projects?

Christo: There has been opposition to our previous projects, but when we finally get the permission and build the project, most of the people who opposed the temporary work of art enjoyed and embraced it. Remember, all our works are temporary … when the project is removed, it will be like it was never there, only a memory for those who actually saw it.

John Walker, artist, Fire Chief of the Western Fremont Fire Protection District, Coaldale: What can you tell us about the kinds of people who might visit Over The River?

Christo: People from all over Colorado, other states and other countries will visit Over The River. There are many art lovers around the world who come to see all our projects – museums organize bus trips for their members, and students of art, architecture, and engineering also typically come to our projects. Children, grandparents, families and people from all walks of life will come to enjoy this work of art, and all these visitors will be dispersed over this 40 mile stretch of river.

Bill Reeves, Candidate for Chaffee County Commissioner: Other than the EIS, what other permitting processes does Christo have to go through and what would be the involvement of the Chaffee County Commissioners?”

Christo: Over The River will be reviewed by state and local agencies in addition to the Bureau of Land Management, but this will generally occur after the Environmental Impact Statement is final. If a county requires any permit, the Commissioners of that county may have a role in the process.

Chuck Rose, Mayor of Salida: Has Christo’s team committed funding to the various EMS, fire and hazmat response requests, specifically the city of Salida’s request for advanced hazmat training and radio purchases?

Christo: We have been meeting with fire and safety officials throughout the corridor and are continuing to discuss the many ways we can help them. Training and radios are just two of the ideas we have talked about. There have also been discussions about various types of fire and safety equipment that we can provide to supplement the local fire districts, providing additional long-term benefits to the communities in the Valley.

Geraldine Alexander, owner, cultureclash gallery, Salida: How do you keep your energy optimistic in the face of so much inflammatory opposition?

Christo: The dialogue between those who support and oppose Over The River is in fact part of the creative process of the work of art.

Colorado Central Magazine: We sought out questions from some known opponents of the project. Rather than submit questions they posed the following:

“Neither Christo nor OTR staff has ever responded to tough questions with informative answers. Why would they start now? This isn’t fair – only Christo controls the responses. He can give vague or self-serving answers.”

How do you respond to these charges and accusations?

Christo: We have a 2,029 page application to the federal government for a permit that has every detail about this project that anyone would want to know. We also have an event management plan that has details about how we would manage the event and protect the public safety and the environment. All these materials are on the BLM website for the world to see. We have had literally hundreds of public meetings and open houses in the local communities and the only questions we do not answer are about politics, religion and other artists. There is no issue we haven’t addressed or questions we have not answered about Over The River. But it is important for people to understand that what we have proposed can change with the Environmental Impact Statement. Our ideas are only suggestions: the BLM, based on the evaluation provided by the Environmental Impact Statement, will make the final decision on our recommendations.