Massive Appeal

We have a lot of great public art in Sacramento, but we’re woefully short on the kinds of large-scale works that help create a sense of place. It’s time to think big.

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And much good has come of it. Celebrated international artists like Dale Chihuly, Tom Otterness and Deborah Butterfield have created beautiful pieces here as a result. But where we have excelled in high-quality projects, the city of Sacramento has largely faltered in terms of scale; outside of the airport, we haven’t created the kind of public art that tourists pose in front of for pictures. There are a few large works elsewhere in the region, such as Roseville’s 80-foot-tall red steel sculpture Cosmos by Aristides Demetrios, visible from I-80. But when it comes to public art in Sacramento, we tend to think small in the most literal sense of the word.The massive "Cupid's Span" sculpture by Claes Oldenburg in San Francisco. (Photo from Shutterstock)

At the risk of sounding indecent once again, size does matter when it comes to public art. While small-scale pieces are important, large-scale artworks, by definition, make bigger impressions. And in a city like Sacramento, that’s a critical component in our continuing effort to brand ourselves to the outside world.

Most cities our size or larger possess a visual vocabulary that is largely determined by their skyline or geography. San Francisco, for example, in addition to some iconic skyscrapers, has a largely unrivaled geographic identity marked by the mountains, the ocean, the bay and the fog. In other less geographically endowed cities, distinctive structures (like the St. Louis Gateway Arch or New York’s Empire State Building, etc.) frequently double as massive works of public art, giving their respective skylines an instantly recognizable civic brand.

As physically beautiful as the Sacramento region is, with its abundant trees, majestic rivers and colorful patchwork of richly textured agricultural fields, its geographical grandeur is best appreciated from the air. And while our downtown plays home to some fine buildings, our skyline still lacks the distinctive iconography that can lend us the sense of place that we need to compete against other cities for people, companies, conventions and tourists.

Quite simply, we need some visual panache for our urban landscape, and large-scale public art is just the ticket."Spoonbridge and Cherry" sculpture by Claes Oldenburg in Minneapolis. (Photo from Shutterstock)

The red hare and the recent Blue Trees projects (in which Australian artist Konstantin Dimopoulos painted 20 sycamores ultramarine blue in downtown Sacramento with an eco-friendly pigment) are a great start, but even as we slog our way through this recession, we need to find ways to build on our recent momentum. In fact, the recession should be less of an excuse and more of a reason to make our city as distinctive as possible.

Just look to almost any other big city to see how they’ve used large-scale public art to enhance their image and provide a permanent cultural experience for their citizens and visitors.

In 1967, Chicago commissioned a controversial 50-foot-tall sculpture by no less than Pablo Picasso. “The name-brand quality of the sculpture inspired other commissions—from Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Claes Oldenburg, Henry Moore—that found easier acceptance among Chicagoans,” penned the Chicago Tribune. “As much as the Water Tower, the Picasso became a symbol of the city.”

In fact, one of those artists, Claes Oldenburg, has become arguably the most prolific and celebrated civic sculptor in the world—the Pablo Picasso of public art, if you will—with his supersized designs of everyday objects (created with his late wife Coosje van Bruggen) enhancing public spaces across the country, in cities such as Cleveland, Des Moines, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York. One of his more recent works is Cupid’s Span—a 60-foot-high and 140-foot-wide bow and arrow that was installed in 2002 along the San Francisco Embarcadero.