'It's Lovely, Really ... What Is It?'

Art at the UN

Norway already knew how it felt to be picked apart. Consider all the snipes over its whaling. But this was too much.

The Norwegians had generously swathed the room of the United Nations Security Council, stretching fine wool and other materials over the walls and chairs. The gift had been well received by the UN.

Alas, visitors liked it too.

"The tourists were breaking off pieces of the wall covering and taking them home as souvenirs," says Svein Andreassen, minister for economic and social affairs for the Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN. "We had to find people specializing in straw coverings to come here in 1992 and fix it."

The UN's member-states drive the world body's dcor. Collectively, they are as prolific as Martha Stewart - if with more varying tastes. Even with 3 million square feet of space, the UN can't display all 221 national gifts.

Receiving them can take diplomacy. What to do with a 20,000-pound stone head, given by Honduras? Or a stuffed coelacanth (see-LAH-canth), a rare fish offered by the Comoros Islands? Both have made their way to the UN basement, for now.

States are urged to give works that represent their culture, are original, and small enough to be displayed. Militarism and nationalism are discouraged. But there are many surprises, and some donors are both sensitive and persistent.

"The hardest thing to decide is where something is placed," says Alvaro De Soto, head of the UN Arts Committee and the UN's de facto curator. "There is lots of competition for space, and it can get quite political, as you can imagine," says Mr. De Soto. "We consult with whoever gives the gift about placement, but some ambassadors are more fussy than others."

Fussiness sometimes has more to do with politics than pride. During the reign of the shah of Iran, a painting hung in the UN that included flags emblazoned with symbols particular to the shah. But after the 1979 revolution, the new government decided they wanted to paint over the former regime's symbols.

The artist learned of the plan and refused. So in a rare occurrence of interference, the UN took the painting down, gave it back to the artist, and the new Iranian government bequeathed a new gift: a reproduction of the Edict of Cyrus, the oldest known human rights declaration, dating from 539 BC.

What's a coconut worth?

The politics of art extends to insurance. Neither the Henri Matisse on the 38th floor, where the secretary-general roosts, nor the pearl-encrusted gold palm tree from Bahrain, nor the leather map of tribal areas from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) is insured.

"We couldn't have someone come in here and say that the stained glass windows from Chagall [a gift of the artist] are worth more than the coconut given to us from the Seychelles Islands," says Nicholas Sardegna, director of facilities management for the UN. "The UN here is self-insured, so we presume if something is gone or destroyed the country would give us something else."

Instead, the UN has to contend with countries that are gone, not gifts. Dotting the gardens are imposing statues and sculptures from the former Soviet Union, East Germany, and Yugoslavia.

Near the visitor's entrance, a 39-foot-high sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon commands the attention of passersby. The Soviet Union presented the 40-ton work "Good Defeats Evil," which is made from Soviet and US missiles.

Treasures that rust

"No one is taking care of these works now," says Florin Ionescu, chief of the office space and planning unit. "Presumably Russia will take care of the former Soviet Union's pieces, but we don't know. Luckily, something like a bronze statue on stone can withstand the weather."

All along, the idea was that countries would pay for care, maintenance, and installation of the work. But a walk through the halls here and a peek at the computerized UN art file shows that some countries are bending the rules.

In the North Garden, 880 squares of cream-colored stone, lying like huge slabs of butter, surround a bell. Israel gave the UN the patio in 1953; it has begun to crumble. The Japanese Peace Bell, cast from coins donated by delegates from 60 nations arrived in 1954; it could use a spit-shine. Yet, neither country gives a sign of doing the needed work, says De Soto.

In other words, not everybody's a Norway.

"Most of the time people take care of the work," says Mr. Ionescu. "But sometimes they're not willing to pick up the costs. We can't do anything but let the work sit there."

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