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Fight waged over Richard Serra sculpture in field north of Toronto

Richard Serra’s Shift, 1970-72.

Scott Barker

Over the decades, thousands of art lovers have clandestinely found their way by foot, snowshoe, snowmobile and ski to a field about 50 kilometres north of Toronto to peer at and walk around Shift, a still relatively unknown outdoor installation completed in 1972 by internationally acclaimed sculptor Richard Serra.

Clandestinely, because Shift's six large concrete forms, each 20 centimetres thick and 1.5 metres high, zigzagging over about four hectares of rolling countryside, were a private commission in 1970 from Toronto art collector Roger Davidson for land owned by his family. Serra was only 32 and a relative unknown in the international art world when he finished Shift, one of the first of the many large site-specific works that have become his signature in the past four decades. Currently hailed as "the world's greatest living sculptor," he works mostly in steel and it's not uncommon for one of his larger pieces to sell for as much as $10-million (U.S.).

Now, as development pressure around Toronto intensifies, including in the Township of King, where Shift is found, a struggle over the fate of this pioneering work of minimalism is under way. And it's not just about keeping the wild raspberry bushes, lichens and goldenrod at bay. A significant moment in the Shift saga is occurring this week in the township as the Ontario Conservation Review Board (CRB) holds a hearing on the installation possibly being designated a heritage property.

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The hearing, which started on Monday, is happening more than 21/2 years after the township's council voted to designate Shift, situated on agricultural land currently planted with corn, a protected cultural landscape under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Hickory Hill Investments (a subsidiary of Great Gulf Group of Companies, a Toronto-based developer) owns the land on which Shift is found and announced in early 2010 that it would appeal that decision to the CRB, a quasi-judicial agency that reviews the protection of heritage properties throughout Ontartio. Although parts of the 96 hectares where the Serra sculpture is located are covered by the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, Hickory Hill has housing and other development plans for some of the site.

At the conclusion of this week's hearing, the CRB has at least 30 days in which to report to King Township that it recommends heritage designation, sides with the developer in recommending no such designation or draws no conclusion with respect to both sides.

At the Monday-morning hearing, Chris Barnett, counsel for Hickory Hill, said that "saving" Shift by using the Ontario Heritage Act is unnecessary because "it is not at risk" by the developer. His client "recognizes it as a significant piece of art," he said, and has no intention of demolishing it. Moreover, the township can ensure its conservation with heritage easements (currently crops are sown within 1.5 metres of the concrete forms) and binding title agreements for future owners without securing heritage status. Such a designation now would be akin to "reaching within a private piece of property … to conserve a private piece of art" – an unprecedented action under the Heritage Act, he suggested.

Leslie Maitland, an independent Ottawa heritage consultant hired by the township, said the status will provide "clarity" to future owners as to Shift's "in-perpetuity" value to the community and guidelines with respect to the maintenance and repair of the concrete forms and their "contextual" environs. Right now, Maitland said, Shift is "potentially at risk" as a result of "unlawful entry and vandalism. … Some future owner might neglect or abuse the piece."

Since King council's vote in late November, 2009, efforts to reach a deal without a formal CRB hearing have proved unsuccessful. In September, 2010, council agreed to hold off on its intent to designate after Hickory Hill announced it was talking to the Art Gallery of Ontario about the possible "conveyance" of Shift to the AGO. It was hoped the gallery would be given some sort of ownership of the work, but talks broke down last September over what an AGO spokesperson called "issues of public accessibility."

In a 2009 draft agreement subsequently voted down by King councillors, Hickory Hill said it wouldn't "harm, alter or destroy" Shift in its development of the site. However, the draft said the developer would have no responsibility for the maintenance or repair of the installation, including "damage by third parties, weather or the elements." Moreover, the developer would not allow, contrary to the wishes of Serra aficionados and some King residents, regular public access to the sculpture. (In 2007, Hickory Hill proposed any such access should be limited to one day a year.)

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Public access and visibility may prove moot at the hearing. Matiland noted that provincial legislation does not define a cultural landscape by the nature of its access, visibility or whether its privately owned or public or a mix thereof.

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