Trinity Church sued by sculptor over 9/11 work removed from courtyard

Steve Tobin filed a complaint under the Visual Artists Rights Act saying the church violated his moral rights


Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church has been sued by the Pennsylvania sculptor Steve Tobin for violating his moral rights when it removed his 9/11-themed work from the church’s courtyard, where it had been installed for ten years.

The sculpture The Trinity Root recalled a sycamore tree that stood in front of the 320-year-old church and bore the brunt of the debris from the collapse of the Twin Towers on 11 September, preserving the church from more extensive damage. Tobin convinced the rector of the church at the time to allow him to excavate the stump and roots of the tree so that he could create a bronze memorial. The artist was not paid by the church and covered the production costs himself—estimated at more than $1m according to the lawsuit filed in federal district court on Wednesday, 12 April—on the promise that the work would remain in the courtyard permanently.

The sculpture was installed in 2005, but a different rector decided it should be removed in 2015, without informing the artist, and relocated to a church-owned seminary in northwestern Connecticut. “The new rector, Dr William Lupfer, didn’t like it, thought it was ugly and took up too much real estate and wanted it gone,” said Kathleen Rogers, Tobin’s business manager. In the process of moving the three-tonne sculpture, some elements were damaged, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, filed under the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act, which prevents the distortion, mutilation or modification of a work of art, says that the sculpture is “site-specific” and that moving it to a location unrelated to the 9/11 attacks diminishes the work and the artist. Additionally, because of the promise that the work would remain permanently in the church courtyard, Tobin “devoted his artistic creativity, time, energy and funds to creating ‘The Trinity Root,’ donating it to the Church and transporting and installing it in the Courtyard,” according to the complaint.

Calls for comment to Trinity Church were not returned, but in a statement to the New York Times the church said: “While we have no comment on this litigation, Trinity is pleased to have the sculpture at Trinity’s retreat center, where it will be among a collection of planned sites that will encourage prayerful reflection, remembrance and spiritual transformation.”