The Art of the Matter

When a sculpture by world-renowned artist Jeff Koons was selected in March as the centerpiece of the plaza outside the new downtown arena, it triggered an explosion of controversy--and an unprecedented opportunity for civic leaders and local artists to influence the future of public art in Sacramento. Here’s how they are attempting to work together to shepherd this nuanced and often heated debate, and how they’re racing against the clock to do it. Can they pull it off?

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A rendering of the future Golden 1 Center plaza, which will feature Jeff Koons' massive "Coloring Book #4," the first in the sculpture series to be permanently displayed in a public space. (Rendering courtesy of the Sacramento Kings)

 

TThe event was like nothing the city had ever seen: Everyone had come out for the art.

The mayor was there, crowded along with the city council and other local leaders, officials, philanthropists, artists, journalists, activists and curious area residents. They had gathered to determine what a new, giant, controversial outdoor sculpture by a world-famous artist meant for downtown. In an unprecedented gesture, city officials had planned to invest heavily in a new plaza that they hoped would become a hub for iconic public art. Still, they sensed a backlash that only seemed to intensify over the weeks and days and even the minutes before this moment—especially as more and more people scrutinized the artwork. After all, the piece wasn’t even original, but rather old work from years earlier simply revived by the sculptor for a coterie of private donors. It didn’t have any relationship or connection to the city’s environment or history. The artist, acclaimed as he was, lived thousands of miles away. To many, his piece, in the end, was just a very expensive, cartoonishly styled hunk of steel plunked in the middle of a sprawling 345-by-220-foot public space. And a lot of people in town just weren’t having it.

“The statue represents the power of City Hall—stark, ugly, overpowering, frightening,” said one elected leader, who urged the city council to swap the sculpture for a more recognizable monument to a favorite local athlete. An influential newspaper columnist torpedoed the piece, dismissing it as “nothing but a big, homely metal thing.” A major art critic wrote that the sculpture was “no tour de force,” focusing a chunk of his review on the acrimony and ambivalence among viewers. Protesters roamed the scene with signs and placards.

Still, when the time came for the mayor to speak to the assembly, he was unflappable, saying: “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.”

And with that, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley unveiled an untitled sculpture by Pablo Picasso—the cubist legend’s 50-foot-tall hybrid of a woman and Afghan dog erected in Chicago’s new Civic Center Plaza in 1967—that became an instant bellwether of how public art would be conceptualized, created, cherished, despised and debated in America for decades to come.

For Sacramentans, this vintage scene might seem especially familiar after events that transpired locally earlier this year. In front of a standing-room-only crowd at City Hall on March 10, Mayor Kevin Johnson and the city council voted 7-0 to approve an $8 million deal to purchase Coloring Book #4, the latest in a series of 18-foot-tall chrome sculptures by famed artist Jeff Koons. The sculpture will be the centerpiece of the plaza in front of Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center—or simply “the arena,” as almost everyone regards the building sprouting like an iron weed at 5th and K streets—that the Kings will call home once it opens in 2016.

Like the Chicago Picasso, the Sacramento Koons prompted a spectrum of reactions from leaders, artists and residents alike. (The March 10 council meeting featured an even split of public testimony about the purchase—27 speakers for and 27 against.) “The chance to secure a work of public art that attracts global attention is an opportunity most cities only dream of,” wrote Crocker Art Museum director Lial Jones in a Sacramento Bee op-ed. “Look at it this way,” explained a letter writer to the same newspaper, “the arena is the cake, and Koons’ sculpture is the cherry on top.” A booming chorus of naysayers and skeptics disagreed. One local artist, invoking a sexually explicit series of Koons’ work from the late ’80s and early ’90s, went on TV decrying Coloring Book #4 as a “breadcrumb to porn.” Another published an op-ed raising concerns about the piece’s maintenance needs and suitability for outdoor display. Other Bee letter writers condemned Koons as “a kitsch version of Thomas Kinkade” and dismissed the sculpture as random “plop art” and a “pile of colored cafeteria trays.”

A large-scale metal sculpture by Pablo Picasso was unveiled at Chicago’s Civic Center Plaza in 1967. (Photo courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)

When the time came for the mayor to speak to the assembly, he was unflappable, saying: “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.” And with that, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley unveiled an untitled sculpture by Pablo Picasso.

 

Some in the region regarded the Koons circus as a positive thing. On the one hand, the backlash was simply par for the public art course. (Many in Chicago did jeer Picasso, after all.) On the other, it stimulated a civic conversation about art in a city where large-scale public and private development—from the arena district to the railyards project and beyond—is imminent after years of dormancy and delay. 

“I found it thrilling to be in a city council meeting where something like 50 people stood up to debate the role of art in our life and in our society,” says Rachel Teagle, the director of the Shrem Museum under construction at UC Davis who is part of the nine-member arena art panel that will solicit and commission the art for the plaza. “I think the Jeff Koons [sculpture] has already been successful as a public art project because it’s provoked enough people to get out and talk and think about the role of art in our lives.”

Part of the Koons backlash was powered by a narrative that more of the arena art budget should have been reserved for Sacramento-area artists, or at least by artwork inspired by the city, its spirit, or even its campaign to keep the Kings. “I was looking at the Koons piece, and I thought, ‘This isn’t really connecting,’ ” says David Garibaldi, the high-profile Sacramento-based performance painter who spoke in opposition to purchasing Coloring Book #4 at the city council meeting in March. “Art is so much more than just the conversation and putting something in public for people to view. I just thought [the council] could do better things with the opportunity. Not the money, not the artist, not where they’re from. That doesn’t matter. It was an opportunity to use art to communicate a great, inspirational message. That’s just where I was coming from.”

For artists and culture-goers around Sacramento, the conversation might just be getting started.

In the overall $9.5 million budget for art at the arena plaza, $1 million is earmarked solely for artists in or around Sacramento and the north Bay Area. The opportunity reflects a donation from Marcy Friedman, a leading local philanthropist (and the mother of arena developer and Kings minority owner Mark Friedman) who is also a member of the arena art panel. This summer, artists will submit proposals for panel-recommended sites like LED screens on the arena’s massive hangar-style doors, two plaza entrances (two blocks apart on J and L streets), or two sweeping escalator wells that face the plaza through the arena’s glass façades. The chosen artists will not only need skin thick enough to withstand the public art bureaucracy and withering attacks historically reserved for public artists in America (from Picasso to Koons and the many far lesser-known artists in between), but also have qualifications to handle both sizable budgets (outlays expected for the proposed arena sites range from $250,000 to $450,000) and tight timelines for the arena opening next year.

Overseen by Shelly Willis, the executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, the art panel is racing to recruit, commission and even educate area painters, sculptors and others who might be able to meet such standards. It won’t be easy: In three decades, only three artists from the area—Granite Bay-based Michael Riegel in 1988, Davis-based Stephen Kaltenbach in 1999, and erstwhile Sacramentan (and current Chico resident) Michael Bishop in 2006—have received public art commissions over $250,000. Now the city needs to commission at least three in a little more than three months. Willis has spent part of this spring unpacking and illuminating America’s grand if turbulent public art tradition—from Depression-era murals to Picasso to Koons—for artists angling for a spot in the arena plan. After an open call for submissions in June, the panel will spend the summer reviewing and selecting artists before officially approving and commissioning designs this fall.

“The criteria that’s the most important as far as the arts commission is concerned—and the city and the county—is that it be of the highest artistic quality possible,” says Willis, who scheduled open meetings in May and June to showcase the challenges artists face while working in the public realm; some of the events feature workshops for artists with an eye on pitching work for the arena. “Everything else is secondary—whether it’s a ‘plop art’ work of art, whether it’s site-specific, whether it’s conceptually specific, whether it’s by a local artist or not. All of those things are secondary to it being the highest artistic quality possible.”

As with that day 48 years ago in Chicago, countless open and perhaps unanswerable questions persist about what will be familiar tomorrow. But today, with Koons on the way, tumult in the air, and the clock ticking on the biggest public art opportunity—and gamble—in Sacramento’s history, one key question demands reckoning: Are our artists ready?

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