Christo and Jeanne-Claude Discuss Art of the Deal

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The dynamic husband and wife artistic team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude are likely better negotiators than many foreign leaders.

The pair is best known for their massive art installations, often using nylon or woven fabric to highlight buildings or works of nature. Their most recent project (2005), “The Gates,” consisted of 7,503 16-foot-tall steel gates with suspended swaths of saffron-colored nylon that snaked through 23 miles of paths in Central Park.

While art may not seem like an area rife with negotiation, the nature of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s large-scale works invariably requires coordinating with a variety of stakeholders including local, state, and federal officials, community groups, environmentalists, landowners, and the general public.

The two received the 2008 Great Negotiator Award on Sept. 23 from the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School, which recognizes those who have made lasting contributions to the fields of negotiation and dispute resolution.

The couple met in Paris in 1958 and have been together ever since, working in tandem to realize their grand-scale visions. Their projects are entirely self-financed, backed by the sale of Christo’s early sketches, drawings, and collages of his projects.

But, before their art can ever be realized, they need permission. And that can be complicated.

The couple participated in a panel at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where they discussed their work and its complex negotiation process.

For “Running Fence,” the 18-foot-high, 24-and-a-half-mile-long white nylon fabric-paneled fence that briefly ran through rolling hills north of San Francisco and dropped into the sea in 1976, the trick was convincing 59 ranchers who owned the land to allow them to build it.

Understanding who the ranchers were and what they did was a large part of the process, said Jeanne-Claude.

Cleverness, too, plays a role, she said. When an important rancher wanted to know what the fence was for, she said her answer of “joy and beauty” failed to impress. As she was leaving his home, she saw her opening. Pretending not to recognize some green plants outside his door, she inquired if they would yield vegetables. He responded that they were flowers. Jeanne-Claude pounced.

“I said ‘flowers, what are they for?’” she recalled. “He said, ‘Honey, I got the message.’”

When faced with the threat of an injunction by those arguing they didn’t have the necessary permits to extend the fence into the Pacific Ocean, they sped up the work, erecting part of the wall at night to head off opposition.

“It just shows you how many levels this [negotiating] is happening on,” said panelist Michael Wheeler, Harvard Business School professor of management practice and a member of the PON executive committee. Wheeler noted the couple could take the cooperative route with their works, but also use the hardball approach.

“They are accomplished at both,” he said.

A simple awareness of cultural differences, said the Bulgarian-born Christo, was also part of the overall negotiating process. He recalled “The Umbrellas,” a simultaneous installation in a valley in Japan and the United States of 3,100 mainly aluminum and fabric umbrellas. In the California valley, the roughly 20-foot-tall and 28-foot-wide umbrellas were a bright yellow; in Ibaraki, Japan, the artists chose a rich blue.

Christo said the first question asked at an early meeting to recruit workers for the project in Southern California was “How much will it cost and who pays for that project?”

The first question at a meeting in Japan the next day, he said, was “Why blue and why yellow?”

In addition, cultivating relationships with a variety of people can push a project along, said the artists.

Christo called the “Pont Neuf Wrapped” a “war” and said it was their most difficult project to date. The problem, he said, was getting Jacques Chirac, the then-mayor of Paris, to agree to let them shroud the famous bridge across the Seine in golden-colored fabric for two weeks. In the end, the couple developed close ties with the city’s cultural commissioner, who slipped a pile of papers in front of the mayor for his signature. Included in the group was one for their project. Chirac promptly signed off on it, and they had their approval.

The couple has had 18 successes to date, but twice as many of their projects have been rejected. Their works take years to come to life. Some require decades of discussion. But still the two persist.

“We are up to here with permits,” said Christo, motioning with his hand to his head about “Over the River,” their next large-scale work that will suspend woven fabric panels over a 40-mile section of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Yet, they remain undaunted, negotiating relentlessly for its installation.

Christo said that often the negotiating process itself infuses a project with importance.

In discussing the “Wrapped Reichstag,” the parliament building in Berlin that was veiled by the artists in more than 1 million square feet of woven polypropylene in 1995, Christo said the opposition to the effort by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl only heightened the work’s significance.

In an attempt to stop them, Kohl ordered a roll-call vote in parliament. To garner support, the artists canvassed the country talking to the parliament members’ constituents to plead their case. Ultimately, they persuaded 79 members of Kohl’s conservative party to vote with them and approve the project.

“The permitting process creates the identity of the work. … It creates the dynamics, power, identity. The process sometimes makes the work more important, much more important than we could imagine.”

In his closing comments, panelist James Sebenius, vice chair of the PON executive committee and HBS Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration, lauded the pair for their passion and persistence, intelligence and “enormous flexibility.”

Specifically, he praised “the adaptation of your approach to completely different settings, different cultures, and so forth — whether it’s California ranchers or French politicians; [whether it’s] participatory consensus-building or … [using] a Medici if you can find one, or … just putting a stake in the ground and starting negotiations from there. … We look at you,” Sebenius concluded, “and we say there’s a lot to learn.”

From the Harvard University Gazette.

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