Richard Saunders, Emmie Donadio, Stephen Donadio
Middlebury College Museum of Art, 2013
From the Foreword
This exhibition, Vito Acconci Thinking Space, has been almost thirty years in the making. It seems hard to believe, but it is true.
I arrived at Middlebury in August 1985, and one of the first things I was asked to do by then College President Olin Robison was to “clean up the Vito Acconci mess.” Only then did I discover the short life and literally inflammatory history of Way Station I. Created during the 1983 winter term by Christian A. Johnson Visiting Professor Vito Acconci and his students, it was the artist’s first permanent work and remained on view for less than two and one-half years before it was burned on commencement eve in 1985.
What I quickly realized was that this relatively small, unobtrusive yet seemingly mysterious (to some) structure had become the focal point for a bitter and polarizing campus dispute over works of art, the appearance of the Middlebury campus, and freedom of expression.
Somewhat naïvely, I assumed that my task was simply to take the funds from the insurance payment the College received in compensation for the damage and refurbish or recreate the work. To me it seemed only logical that restoring a commissioned work of art by a noted visiting professor was the only course of action. Surely, no one in a position of responsibility at an institution of higher learning devoted to the very premise that here the freedom of expression is sacrosanct and inviolate, could let such a destructive act remain unchallenged. But I was wrong. To my dismay I found that a fear that the restoration of Way Station might precipitate additional acts of campus vandalism trumped, for the time being, any will to defend a fundamental tenet of a liberal arts college.
So although initially thwarted in an effort to restore Way Station, I refused to give up the belief that this wrong would eventually be righted. Along the way such efforts have brought some remarkable tangential results. A 1989 proposal by Eric Nelson, a sculptor and then Associate Professor of Studio Art, and me to develop a campus art collection (that would include the restored Way Station) eventually gave rise to the College’s “One Percent for Art “program and the subsequent creation of one of the most distinguished small college campus art collections in the United States. But only now, after all these years, has Way Station risen, phoenix like, from its own ashes. Thanks largely to the enormous cooperation and trust of the artist, as well as the blessing of president Ronald D. Liebowitz and the Middlebury College Board of Trustees, the campus community and visitors alike finally have an opportunity to see for themselves a work whose very premise was that all of us need to take a moment out of our daily lives to reflect on larger issues, or, as John Gay, the eighteenth century English poet, wrote:
“Give me, kind Heaven, a private station, A mind serene for contemplation!”
After such a long journey, it is very exciting to see Way Station contextualized in this important exhibition and publication and to rightfully recognize its pivotal role in the career of one of the most imaginative, provocative, and compelling artists of our age.
Director and Walter Cerf Distinguished College Professor
Middlebury College Museum of Art