Jeff Koons train: Destination LACMA or the High Line?


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While LACMA’s plans to build a massive Jeff Koons sculpture of a train outside the museum seem to be running out of steam, the Friends of the High Line in New York have thrown another possible wrench into the works: They announced their desire to build the same unrealized sculpture by Koons in their popular city park, which overlooks Chelsea and neighboring areas in Manhattan where an elevated railway once ran.

“I think the train connection is really powerful for us,” said Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, which is known for integrating art, though usually temporary, into the elevated park.


As a permanent attraction, the Koons sculpture “could point to the city’s industrial history and how freight trains used to run here,” he said, adding that one proposed site is the rail yards between 30th and 34th streets, near the West Side Highway.

The sculpture, which the Los Angeles County Museum of Art unveiled to the public with dramatic renderings five years ago, consists of a realistic-looking 70-foot replica of a 1943 Baldwin 2900 steam locomotive hanging from a real 160-foot crane. The train is meant to look and sound authentic, with wheels chugging and steam releasing on occasion. The project was estimated to cost at least $25 million, though several people close to the project say that actual costs could run much higher.

LACMA Director Michael Govan once compared it to the Eiffel Tower as a landmark that could be seen from many places in L.A., including the 10 Freeway. Carlson & Co, the local fabricator that completed some $2 million of feasibility studies for the project before going out of business in May 2010, compared it to Disney-worthy theme park attractions for the complexity of its engineering.

LACMA has not shied from other challenging projects. The museum just moved a 340-ton rock about 100 miles by surface streets in order to build Michael Heizer’s $10-million installation on campus, ‘Levitated Mass.’ But Govan called the train “much more complicated than anyone imagined. That’s what the initial feasibility studies proved: that it was safe, possible and more complicated than anyone thought.’ He cited the complexity, the financial downturn of 2008 and the museum’s need to prioritize its big expenses as reasons for the delay.

Is LACMA committed to going ahead with plans? “Just being honest, we are taking this one step at a time,” Govan said. “The [LACMA] board never made a commitment to the train; they made a commitment to studying it.”

He said the museum has enlisted the German company Arnold, near Frankfurt, to do a new study, focusing “on how to actually build the train and what it might cost.” He expects the results this summer.


Hammond says the Friends of the High Line group has not yet raised any money or sponsored any studies for the project — “we’re at a much earlier stage than LACMA.” But he said he has been thinking about the train for years. He learned of the project in 2005 from Govan himself, then director of Dia: Beacon.

At that time, Koons was looking for a new home and sponsor for the work, originally intended for Francois Pinault’s proposed museum on the Seine (which the French billionaire ultimately nixed in favor of Venice). Hammond was looking for artwork for a plaza at 18th Street and 10th Avenue adjacent to the then-developing High Line. Govan introduced the two.

“That plaza was too small for this work, but I loved the proposal,” Hammond said. “And I love the idea of taking a horizontal train and turning it vertical in a vertical city, over a former train line.”

But he admits that his vision for the train is at present just that. “My first priority is funding the completion of the High Line, so we would only do this if one donor stepped forward.” He says that his dream donor would provide for ongoing maintenance, which he acknowledges could be significant.

And what if LACMA were to finish building the locomotive first? Hammond said that wouldn’t deter him. “We’d still be interested. Imagine the feeling and sense of wonder that a kid could get from looking at the train. Does that kid care if there’s another one?”

That question led to another potential junction on the train’s hypothetical route to completion: What if the High Line were to team up with LACMA to share the considerable production costs and put a train on both coasts?

“We’ve talked to Jeff [Koons] about that possibility,” said Hammond. “We would be open to it.”

Govan also said he’s also discussed that option with the High Line and the artist. “The High Line is a great group of people. I’ve known them for a very long time, and all discussions are open.”

But the LACMA director expressed concern that having two trains instead of one could wind up being less of a draw.

“Would trustees and donors be interested in two trains? I don’t know the answer to that. On one level, it would be kind of cool to have them coast to coast, and it could be less expensive,’ Govan said. ‘But then there’s the issue of identity: Would you have two Eiffel Towers?”


LACMA rock has mass attraction

Michael Govan on Jeff Koons’ proposed locomotive

A master works his magic on museum

--Jori Finkel