What Should Be the Future of ‘The Vines’ in Norwalk?

A sculpture in Norwalk could have a new home or become part of a mural project depending on what the Arts and Cultural Commission decides to do.

What Should Be the Future of ‘The Vines’ in Norwalk?
A look at "Gateway to Norwalk" in February 2024 (Photo by Kelly Prinz)

Anyone who has driven, walked, or taken a bus along West Avenue in Norwalk has seen the vine-like artwork, called “Gateway to Norwalk.” The 700 to 800-foot sculpture hangs along the concrete walls and is made up of twisted metal that is meant to resemble vines that include words and phrases in multiple languages

The piece went up in 2016, and now the Norwalk Arts and Cultural Commission—which was not involved in the original installation—has been asked to decide on its future. The Redevelopment Agency initially commissioned the piece to create something “welcoming, inviting, and noticeable,” Sabrina Godeski, the city’s director of business development and tourism, told the commission in January 2023. 

The commission had selected two artists in January 2023—Ernesto Manaje and Sonny Behan—to create a mural along the wall, which runs from across Mathews Park down to just before the SoNo Collection, as well as the underpasses in that area. However, Brian Kaspr, the chair of the commission noted in February 2024 that no contract had been signed just yet as they had to figure out what to do with the existing sculpture first. 

“No contract has been written, but I also don’t want to keep stringing them along,” he said at the Feb. 2024 meeting. “We do have two artists and money approved for this thing so if it doesn't move or if they are uninterested in participating in this way, then what happens to that proposal, that money, those artists?”

The budget for this project is about $200,000. The Redevelopment Agency will also pay to take down the existing sculpture and put it up somewhere else if the Commission decides, Godeski said. 

She said that the commission had a few options: take down the sculpture to make way for a new mural; try and work with the artists selected to do the mural and ask them to incorporate the piece; or find a suitable spot for The Vines somewhere else and move it to make way for a mural. 

Kaspr said that they did ask the artists selected for the mural if they were interested in working with The Vines or have them removed, and the artists said that they’d prefer if the piece was removed.

He also noted​​ that “starts to tiptoe into basically we’re forcing a collaboration…so I’d kind of like there to be a conversation if that’s the direction we go.”

At its February 2024 meeting, the commission decided that it would review all of the options and put forward a recommendation of what to do with the sculpture next month. Kaspr said that he would like to speak to the original artist of The Vines as well to get his input on the future of the piece.

Backstory on the Vines

The original sculpture, known colloquially as “The Vines” was commissioned in 2014, for about $100,000, through a grant with the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Our Town” program, as well as matching funds from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the city.

In 2016, artist Suikang Zhao installed the sculpture, which includes phrases, such as ‘welcome’ in multiple languages. 

But the installation has been met with mixed reviews over time. When it was initially installed, some residents said that “it looks exactly like someone spilled a pot of boiling spaghetti on the wall.” 

“I know there are a lot of people who are passionately anti-vine people,” said Marc Alan, a member of the Arts Commission. “I’ve met people who hate it.”

While some members of the commission, including Alan, said that they liked the piece, many said that in its current location, it’s hard to understand. 

“I think there is a mild lesson to be learned here,” Kaspr said at the commission’s November 2023 meeting. “I think a lot of people just don't know what it is and unfortunately without the wall text, you won't know what that thing is.” 

Nori Grudin, a member of the commission, spent time researching the project and how it came to be and said after understanding its intention, she was torn on what to do with it. 

“It bridges the arts and cultural commission’s corridor with these phrases in different languages,” she said at the commission’s February 2024 meeting. 

But commissioners also noted that it took her and themselves doing research to understand the piece, something that doesn’t happen for people just driving past and seeing it. 

‘Decommissioning’ a Piece of Art

One of the biggest questions the commission has come back to over the past few months is how do they “decommission” a piece of public art?

“Art being so subjective, we do a mural somewhere, some people might love it, some people might hate it—I like The Vines personally, I know other people who passionately don't like it,” he said. “But my only objection to taking it down is, I don't think we’ve ever voted to decommission it as art in the City of Norwalk.”

Alan said he believed they should establish a process for decommissioning a piece of art. 

“I think that it’s an interesting case,” Alan said at the November 2023 meeting. “The processes by which things get created but also how pieces get decommissioned—this is an interesting one because technically we [the Arts Commission] didn't commission it. Redevelopment [Agency] commissioned it but it is part of the city’s public arts collection.”

Kaspr agreed, noting that the commission should set the bar high in establishing a precedent for decommissioning a piece, something others agreed with. 

“I think it’s important to come up with some sort of standards and procedures for decommissioning artwork,” Council member Heather Dunn told the commission in February 2024. 

However, Kaspr noted it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be taking down a piece of art, just that there should be a process laid out. 

“There is something about an ebb and flow and having this kind of system with art in, art out—it isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he said at the February 2024 meeting. “Maybe it’s run its course.”

The commission also questioned if they just were to move it, would that be considered “decommissioning it.” 

Next Steps 

The other “problem with this problem” Kaspr noted, is that it’s an extremely large piece.

“Finding a city owned piece of property to put this is a little tricky,” he said.

Some commissioners suggested the parking garage next to the Maritime Aquarium as an option or potentially the side of a library or a school. Naomi Clark, a member of the commission, said at its November 2023 meeting, that if they did decide to move it they could work to make sure it’s “showcased in a better way so people can read the words,” and also better educate people on the meaning behind it. 

“There's a lot of good things about that piece,” she said.

Kaspr said that a subcommittee of the Arts Commission would meet over the next few weeks and review the options for what could be done with The Vines, before presenting their recommendations to the full commission. 

“I am skeptical that we’ll be able to [have a mural up] by this year although I really, really, really would like to by fall, but I’m being realistic in terms of thinking about what this would take,” Kaspr said.