Christopher Columbus statue welcomed in Puerto Rico after US cities rejected it

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Zurab Tsereteli’s The Birth of the New World is 45ft taller than the Statue of Liberty and was turned down by Columbus, New York, Boston and Miami, Anthony Haden-Guest writes for London’s Guardian.

On Tuesday in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Zurab Tsereteli’s huge sculpture of Christopher Columbus was inaugurated.

At 350ft, Birth of a New World is not the tallest sculpture in existence. For example, Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, in the London Olympic Park, is 25ft taller. But Tsereteli’s work is enormous, 45ft taller than the Statue of Liberty from pedestal to torch.

The voyage to Puerto Rico of the work, entitled The Birth of the New World, has been long, arduous and controversial, not least because of its expense on an island gripped by a $72bn debt crisis.

Making strategic donations has long been part of Tsereteli’s modus operandi, but though The Birth of the New World is a present it cost $12m to raise it in Puerto Rico, which was not its intended home. The statue was to have been a donation to the United States, to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall there in 1492.

In 1993, Columbus, Ohio, turned it down. Other cities followed suit, including New York, Boston, Cleveland, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Finally the statue was offered a home in Puerto Rico, where Columbus arrived in 1493.

The first choice was Catano, across the bay from the capital, San Juan, but it was decided it would be a risk to aircraft. Arecibo, a northern town, was chosen.

Given Puerto Rico’s financial problems, speeches at the inauguration on Tuesday carried more of a subtext than such remarks usually do.

Jose Gonzales, Tsereteli’s partner in the Puerto Rican company that raised the money to finance the project, said: “We are celebrating the Birth of a New World. But it is also the birth of a new Puerto Rico.”

Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, executive director of a tourism company, noted that “visitors to San Juan can see all of what Puerto Rico has to offer” and said cruise ships bring a million visitors to San Juan each year.

What was being hoped for was clear. In 1997, in Spain’s Basque region, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum opened. Within three years it had earned the regional government €100m in tourist taxes, enough to pay its costs with a dollop extra. Economists call this “the Bilbao Effect”.

Whether The Birth of the New World can work similar magic for Puerto Rico remains to be seen, but as a work it upends preconceptions. You expect a “Homo Sovieticus” with modernist trimmings but this Columbus has slender arms, one hand on a ship’s wheel. There are three sails behind him, each perforated with a cross. He looks like a picture in a very large children’s book.

Tsereteli’s reputation can seem as outsized as his bronzes. Georgian-born and in his early 80s, he is a billionaire who sits on the boards of four Moscow museums, is an ambassador for the United Nations and is loaded with such honorifics as France’s Legion d’Honneur.

Such heavy hitters make themselves liable to close scrutiny. Tsereteli’s larger pieces have been routinely dissed, including a 315ft statue of Peter the Great which some Muscovites so loathed that they planned to blow it up.

In Arecibo, Tsereteli, wearing white and scarlet braces, was ubiquitous, alert and genial. Asked through an interpreter how he felt about the bad press surrounding his statue’s arrival in Puerto Rico, he shrugged.

“People say what they say,” he said. “Publicity is good. I know what I’m doing.”

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