Speaking at a rally shortly before the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, New York Governor George Pataki told the crowd how moved he was by a new exhibit he had just helped unveil at Madame Tussaud’s in Times Square: a life-sized, carved-wax portrait of three firefighters raising the American flag out of the rubble at Ground Zero.
There are no plans to install a Madame Tussaud’s at the World Trade Center site, but on the eve of 9/11’s fourth anniversary, such imagery has come to define the sort of artistic expression and commentary allowable on this most sensitive piece of real estate. Since June a battle has been raging in lower Manhattan over the institutions slated for one of two cultural buildings called for in Daniel Liebeskind’s master plan for the WTC site–and, with Pataki following the charge (his eye on national office), the right wing is winning.
The building, a horizontal box of glass and wood designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, will occupy a corner of Ground Zero’s “memorial quadrant,” alongside the “Reflecting Absence” memorial and a museum containing artifacts and other material documenting the events of 9/11 and the people who were killed that day. Intended to provide a buffer between the heart of the memorial and the quotidian traffic and commerce surrounding the site, the Snøhetta Cultural Center was to house two of four organizations chosen by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) last year from 113 applicants: the Drawing Center, an art museum based in SoHo since the late 1970s, and the brand-new International Freedom Center (IFC), a “multi-dimensional cultural institution combining history, education and engagement” that is the brainchild of Tom Bernstein, co-founder of Manhattan’s high-end athletics complex, Chelsea Piers. Working in a yin-yang relationship with “Reflecting Absence” and the 9/11 museum, which commemorate loss, the IFC is “meant to honor regeneration, the living, and the positive,” says Paula Grant Berry, the project’s vice chair, whose husband, David, perished in the south tower of the WTC.
The Snøhetta design was unveiled with much celebratory hoopla on May 19. But by mid-August, after a flurry of attacks, the building was being scaled down in size and in danger of having no tenants. The Drawing Center had been driven away by censorship-like demands for oversight after trumped-up accusations that several works displayed over its twenty-eight-year history were “un-American.” The IFC, meanwhile, was given until September 23 to provide detailed descriptions of its exhibits to assure the LMDC that it will forever heed a threat Pataki issued at a June press conference: “We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom, or denigrates the sacrifice and courage that the heroes showed on September 11.” In mid-August the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a union representing some 22,000 active and retired New York City firefighters, announced it was withdrawing its support for the WTC Memorial Foundation, which oversees and raises funds for the quadrant, because of the “unacceptable” cultural institutions.