It's official: the Arkansas River will soon join Central Park, the Pont Neuf, and the Reichstag as the latest site to be transformed into a whimsical art wonderland by the environmental artist Christo. The project — which involves the suspension of flat panels along a 42-mile-long stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado, creating a ribbon of reflective fabric just above the water — received the green light from the Federal Bureau of Land Management yesterday. The governmental approval comes after years of political back-and-forth and prolonged debates among environmentalists, residents, and activists over both the project's aesthetics and environmental impact. The 76-year-old artist now hopes to execute the $50 million work by 2013.
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the river, told the Wall Street Journal that it approved the project only after Christo agreed to over 100 measures that would prevent disruption to the river or neighboring towns. In the years leading up to the decision, environmental groups worried that the project could disrupt the local wildlife — specifically, that it would block local sheep's access to water sources. Now approved, the artwork, titled "Over the River," is expected to draw over 400,000 visitors and bring in $121 million to the region.
"Over the River" marks the first time since the 1969 passage of the National Environmental Policy Act that a work of art has served as the subject of an environmental impact statement. (The official two-year process of analyzing how a structure will affect its surroundings is usually reserved for bridges, highways, and dams.) Christo, who believes the bureaucratic negotiations leading up to his grandly scaled installations are an integral part of the artworks themselves, was thrilled that the impact statement had already mobilized so many to participate in his artwork. "Every artist in the world likes his or her work to make people think," he told the New York Times. "Imagine how many people were thinking, how many professionals were thinking and writing in preparing that environmental impact statement."
Those not among the thousands of who left comments on the impact statement online will still have the chance to experience Christo's work in a more traditional fashion come 2013. The artist told the WSJ he hopes the public will drive alongside the ribbon or raft underneath it.
Before "Over the River" is realized, Christo must jump through a few more hoops: he still has to get permits from Fremont and Chaffee counties, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the State Patrol. The permits are expected to proceed smoothly, however, as these agencies were involved in creating the environmental impact statement as well as in drafting Monday's decision.
To address environmental groups' concerns about the local bighorns, Christo has become something of a sheep patron himself. He established a Bighorn Sheep Adaptive Management Fund, and will finance the organization through the sale of his artwork.
Christo describes his vision for "Over The River" while walking along the Arkansas River in Colorado during the summer of 2010.