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Emails: University of Wyoming officials sped up, touted removal of anti-coal sculpture

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University of Wyoming officials sped up the removal of a controversial anti-coal sculpture because of the furor it caused, but chose to tell the public the removal was as scheduled and because of water damage, emails show.

Emails first requested by Wyoming Public Radio and later obtained by the Star-Tribune show that the decision to remove “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around, Comes Around” from the campus was made by UW President Tom Buchanan before the piece was damaged and a full year before the piece’s dismantling was due.

The decision to remove the flat whirlpool of coal and charred Wyoming wood sinking into the earth was the last in a number of steps top university officials took to calm angry state legislators, energy industry donors and trade group representatives.

“It’ll be a slog for all of us,” one university official wrote in an email after the news of the sculpture broke.

The emails, obtained through Wyoming open records laws, detail university officials scrambling to deal with the backlash from news of the sculpture’s installation by British artist Chris Drury at the intersection of 10th and Ivinson streets in Laramie.

Drury built the 36-foot-wide sculpture under a commission from the UW Campus Public Art Committee. The approximately $45,000 piece was paid for by an anonymous donor and the Wyoming Cultural Trust. Drury’s project description didn’t mention climate change or the coal industry.

Emails show Buchanan approved the sculpture, was kept up to date on its installation, and decided the sculpture should be removed a year earlier than planned “given the controversy that it has generated,” he wrote in an email. The university didn’t announce the sculpture’s removal.

One group of people was notified, though. As workers demolished the sculpture, a top university official emailed legislators in Campbell County, the heart of Wyoming’s coal country, to let them know the sculpture — labeled “insulting” by one of the lawmakers — would soon be gone.

‘What kind of crap is this?’

The July 12, 2011, news release from the university about the art piece hit like a hand grenade.

The news wasn’t presented as anything particularly controversial: A new sculpture was under construction — a large swirl of charred, beetle-killed wood and chunks of coal, a meditation on the evolution of the geological and natural cycle of life. It was part of a temporary art exhibition arranged by the University of Wyoming Art Museum.

Reporters were quick to call industry officials for their thoughts.

The reaction was swift and fierce. Whatever the artist’s original goals for the piece, it looked anti-coal. It seemed to forge a link between coal and environmental destruction and seemed like a visual rebuke to the coal industry in a state where coal mining employs thousands and pay millions in taxes, royalties and fees.

The sculpture felt like a “stab in the back,” said Wyoming Mining Association President Marion Loomis, in an email that day to Don Richards, then the university’s director for governmental and community affairs.

The energy industry pays millions in taxes, royalties and fees, he noted. Left unsaid: Those millions flow through state coffers to the university.

“Don, what kind of crap is this?” Loomis asked.

Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, fired off an email to oil and gas company officials and major university donors slamming the university for the sculpture.

“The next time the University of Wyoming is asking for donations it might be helpful to remind them of this and other things they have done to the industries that feed them before you donate,” Hinchey wrote. “They always hide behind academic freedom but their policies and actions can change if they so choose.”

Hinchey sent his message to a number of Wyoming oil and gas business, civic leaders and university donors..

Top university officials, including at least one trustee, worked the phones to answer concerns from coal companies, including Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak Energy. Peabody wrote that the sculpture threatened its willingness to donate $2 million.

UW officials called a Peabody vice president to cover a range of talking points that defended the sculpture, took responsibility for it and acknowledged how valuable extractive industries were to the state.

Mark Northam, the director of the UW School of Energy Resources, wrote an email to other university officials worrying that the clamor over the sculpture was threatening $4 million in donations.

Randy Teeuwen of Encana forwarded Hinchey’s comments to a number of university officials, including Northam, the day the news of the sculpture broke. Hinchey’s email had been “widely distributed,” Teeuwen said, and he suggested the industry would like to hear from UW on the topic.

Northam responded later that day, admitting he wasn’t aware of the sculpture prior to the uproar over it. He was surprised at Hinchey’s comments, he said, considering UW and the School of Energy Resources’ close partnership with industry on energy research and education.

“I hope that a headline and artist’s statement about a piece of art, designed to inflame, do not change that,” he wrote Teeuwen. “If so, we all lose out.”

Teeuwen wrote back reassuring Northam and the others, calling UW and Encana’s relationship “on firm footing.”

“I think most of us believe that the university should not censor art or other forms of expression and that free speech is inviolate,” Teeuwen wrote. “It’s something about which we need to occasionally remind our stakeholders.”

Legislators respond

State legislators joined the attack. Legislators, primarily from coal-rich Campbell County, wrote university officials. They threatened to restrict the university’s funding, called for a hunt to find out which university officials knew about the sculpture ahead of time and decried the university for not knowing about the piece.

“It never ceases to amaze me how the UW invites folks in that spit in the face of the very system that writes the checks to pay the bills at the university,” wrote Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, in an email to Buchanan.

One influential legislator threatened the university’s funding, and later the committee of senators and representatives in charge of budget decisions demanded an accounting of art at the university, both what it was and how it was paid for.

“I am considering introducing legislation to avoid any hypocrisy at UW by insuring that no fossil fuel derived tax dollars find their way into the University of Wyoming funding stream,” Rep. Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, wrote in an email to university officials.

“We are going to get to the bottom of who knew what and when they knew it,” Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, wrote in an email to UW trustee John Macpherson on July 21, 2011, more than a week after the sculpture hit the news.

The university had received a little “less than a dozen” contacts from state legislators and a number of industry representatives, Richards told Buchanan in an email the next day.

“The reactions ranged from disappointment to indications of reduced future support, though some of the frustration has been muted by individual discussions,” he wrote.

The clamor over the sculpture decreased in the following days, Richards said, but there was much damage left to repair. Other emails detailed a string of in-person meetings and trips to Gillette for UW officials to meet with the legislators most vocal about the sculpture.

Gillette legislators didn’t like the art piece, which seemed to confirm their fears that UW wasn’t meeting coal country’s views and was a symbol of the university’s lack of interest in meeting the area’s educational needs. The sculpture was simply the latest reason why Gillette might need to consider creating its own four-year institution, the legislators discussed via email.

For university officials, the sculpture controversy was a little-needed step back in a testy relationship, and an uproar that forced difficult conversations with industry representatives, lawmakers and donors.

“It’ll be a slog for all of us,” Richards told UW Foundation Vice President John Stark in a July 30, 2011, email.

Down with Carbon Sink

University officials have maintained the sculpture was removed on schedule and because of water damage. However, emails between officials and others indicate that’s not true.

Nearly nine months after the piece was built, Buchanan emailed museum director and chief curator Susan Moldenhauer about Carbon Sink. Buchanan apparently remembered what the piece looked like, but couldn’t remember what it was called.

“It’s about time the fire pit and the big metal sculpture in front of Ross Hall disappeared,” he wrote in the April 10 email, referring to Carbon Sink and another art piece at a different campus location.

Moldenhauer responded that temporary art at Prexy’s Pasture — an open area not anywhere close to Carbon Sink — was due for removal in the summer, with the remaining art — including Carbon Sink — scheduled for removal in the summer of 2013. She had emailed a similar schedule to Buchanan in January.

“Given the controversy that it has generated, it would be best for UW if the fire pit (I’ve forgotten the name of the work) could be considered part of the Prexy’s removal during the summer of 2012,” Buchanan wrote back.

More than a month later, a broken water line submerged the sculpture, damaging it and further speeding up plans for the sculpture’s demise.

Moldenhauer emailed Buchanan on May 16 to let him know Carbon Sink would be removed soon.

“No press planned,” she wrote.

Damage control

On May 22, in the midst of the four days it took for workers to dismantle the sculpture, Richards emailed a UW alumnus who had wondered what was happening to Carbon Sink. The water damage caused the sculpture’s early removal, Richards wrote.

He forwarded the email to Buchanan’s office and Chad Baldwin, the university’s director of institutional communications, for reference in case of any other inquiries.

The same day, Richards emailed the legislators from Campbell County and Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, to let them know.

“I want to inform you that today, the temporary ‘Carbon Sink’ artwork on UW’s campus is being demolished,” he wrote. “The artwork was always considered to be temporary, but it is being removed one year earlier than planned.”

He didn’t mention the water damage.

Richards acknowledged the hits the university likely took in many corners of the state because of the sculpture, but told the legislators he thought some good had come of the situation, including a “greater appreciation by some UW personnel as to the financial support for the institution and hard work done by those in the extractive industries.”

Richards was leaving his job at the university to take a position in the state Legislative Service Office, he said, and would soon work for the same legislators with whom he was mending fences. Richards noted that he was now chairman of the UW Public Art Advisory Committee, and he indicated he would have some influence there.

“There is no doubt that there is a need to include a broader group of voices regarding outdoor and interior artwork in the future,” he said.

Several of the legislators wrote back praising the decision.

“Glad to hear it is going away and the earlier the better,” wrote Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette.

During the next few days, university workers removed the wood and coal, and filled the circle of earth with sod. Most of the wood was sent to the landfill, emails show.

The coal, mined and sold from Black Hills Corp.’s Wyodak mine near Gillette, was burned for heat in the university’s central energy plant.

Reach Jeremy Fugleberg at 307-266-0623 or Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jerenergy.


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