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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"Leap," the now-iconic aluminum red hare at Sacramento International Airport, drew its share of critics when it debuted inside Terminal B in 2011. (Photo by Jeremy Sykes)

The city’s art officials are hardly strangers to big undertakings or local artists or even outrage, as the $8 million project that placed indelible pieces (including those by Sacramentans Gregory Kondos and Joan Moment) throughout Sacramento International Airport’s gleaming, billion-dollar Terminal B will attest. Leap, the airport’s $800,000 floating red hare by Denver-based artist Lawrence Argent, drew harsh attacks upon its unveiling in 2011. Like Picasso’s sculpture and scores of other embattled artworks before it, it has endured and endeared to become a symbol of the city. Still, public art’s history in Sacramento is relatively new, not far removed from generations when the very concept of public art was synonymous with a spirit of stolid, inoffensive commemoration. Artist Judith Baca coined the phrase “the cannon in the park” as a shorthand for this strain of cultural expression—bronze sculptures of political leaders and war heroes (and, yes, cannons in parks), or murals by the Public Works of Art Project documenting scenes of 1930s-era American life.

Technically speaking, “public art” has no real definition. It can be publicly or privately financed or owned (or paid for with some combination of the two). It can reside indoors or outdoors on public or private property. At its most general, public art is characterized as art that’s freely accessible to the public. By mid-century, in any case, as modern art swept through postwar America, a conception of public art that was more independent of its surroundings gathered currency among city planners and leaders. Starting in Philadelphia in 1959, many local governments began initiating “percent for art” programs that reserved 1 percent of public construction costs for art on-site. This percentage and its terms vary in cities, counties and states nationwide; Sacramento mandates 2 percent of a building’s construction budget (as opposed to administration, design and other costs), thus the original $5.5 million art fund carved from the Entertainment & Sports Center’s estimated $277 million construction cost. Private donors, like the funders of the $400,000 Picasso sculpture in Chicago, also began getting in on the action.

“I found it thrilling to be in a city council meeting where 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 at UC Davis. “I think the Jeff Koons [sculpture] has already been successful as a public art project because it’s provoked people to get out and talk.”


“There was a shift,” Willis says of this era. “All of a sudden, cities and communities and the government were commissioning artworks that were the best artworks possible and putting them into environments outside museum walls.”

In this sense, Sacramento’s planned addition of a Jeff Koons sculpture to the plaza outside the arena is consistent with a great urban tradition. After Picasso, Chicago alone has installed pieces by such renowned artists as Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró and, in arguably its most stunning addition, Anish Kapoor, the British-Indian sculptor whose bulging chrome Cloud Gate—known colloquially as “The Bean”—has dazzled visitors to the city’s Millennium Park even since an unfinished version of the sculpture debuted in 2004. Its final cost, estimated at $23 million, reached nearly four times its original budget of $6 million as fabrication and installation expenses mounted between 2004 and Cloud Gate’s final dedication in 2006.

Gerald Walburg’s "Indo Arch," which was completed in downtown Sacramento in 1979, was the first large-scale work commissioned by the city as part of its Art in Public Places program.

The broad if checkered legacy of modern public art in Sacramento trails Chicago’s by only a decade or so, stretching back to 1977 when the city created its Art in Public Places program. That year, Sacramento State art instructor Gerald Walburg won a design competition for a piece demarcating the junction between the west side of Downtown Plaza and the pathway leading to Old Sacramento. By 1979, the five pieces of Cor-Ten steel that compose Walburg’s Indo Arch took their spot amid howls of disapproval near the intersection of 4th and K streets. Scores of artworks have gone up around the city and county in the three and a half decades since. Some, like the colorful “Fuller Poles” at 16th and Q streets, have proven icons of memory and engagement. They’re pieces worth a journey—landmarks where you wouldn’t hesitate to take visitors or meet friends. Others, like the garbled Clock Tower sculpture to the south of Indo Arch or the blocky fountains installed at downtown’s East End project, have loomed as broken icons of disrepair and ennui. They’re the kinds of pieces that might elicit groans from those same visitors and friends: What were you thinking?

This latter reaction can happen anywhere. Perhaps most notoriously, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc—a 120-foot band of steel bisecting Federal Plaza in New York City—was removed from its site in 1989 after years of litigation and debate about the responsibility of public art to its environment (if any). Yet disappointment with public art tends to occupy an outsized place in the collective consciousness of Sacramento. It’s not just the arena’s historically large public art budget that has captivated the local arts community, but also the psychic stakes—the need to redeem years of inertia by recognizing art for, from and about Sacramento. Sure, Marcy Friedman’s million-dollar donation is staggering, but its announcement with the news that eight times that amount—$5 million of it from public coffers, and $3 million from donations by Kings co-owners Vivek Ranadivé, Kevin Nagle and Phil Oates—will be shipped off to a New Yorker like Koons is enough to arouse all the old rankling anxieties. “If [the panel] had just announced, ‘We’re earmarking a million dollars for local art,’ that would have been met with so much happiness and joy,” says Merle Axelrad, a critic of the Coloring Book #4 deal who has had her fabric-collage landscapes commissioned as public art at City Hall and the CalEPA building downtown.

“I was looking at the Koons piece, and I thought, ‘This isn’t really connecting,’ ” says David Garibaldi, the Sacramento-based performance painter. “Art is so much more than just the conversation and putting something in public for people to view.”

Which isn’t to say that the frustration over Koons is specifically about entitlement and parochialism, or about Coloring Book #4, or even all that much about Koons. In art, context is everything. In a 2003 article in Sculpture magazine, artist and academic Harriet Senie theorized that much of the contempt for Manhattan’s Tilted Arc stemmed from a phenomenon she called “the Velcro factor,” in which detractors stuck their frustrations over the circumstances of the art—the impassability and inconvenience of Serra’s hulking sculpture blocking the middle of Federal Plaza—to their judgments of the art itself. It’s easy to imagine a correlation with the Entertainment & Sports Center, whose opaque politics and quarter-billion-dollar public commitment (particularly without a public vote) drew enormous opposition before Jeff Koons ever entered the picture. In theory, any art in the plaza—whether conceived in Newcastle or in New York City—is just a surface to project continued arena antagonism.

Willis, a veteran arts commissioner with an encyclopedic knowledge of American public art, is sensitive to this context. Nevertheless, she admits she might have been late to it, and was blindsided by the tsunami of second-guessing and recriminations that accompanied it.

“I think that one of the reasons [for the controversy] was that the community felt they didn’t know about this—that it sort of came out of nowhere,” Willis says. “In public art history, one of the most important things to do is to educate the public about work before it arrives, so it doesn’t feel like it arrived overnight—that nobody’s surprised. Because really, the public realm is everybody’s living room. You don’t want to just wake up in the morning and walk downstairs into the living room and have this big thing sitting there. You want to know about it. What does it mean? Where does it come from? Why are you getting it?”


Of course, acknowledging context also means acknowledging other, harder realities about the challenges facing the arena’s public art process. First, part of Koons’ appeal is the assemblage of methods, staff, organization and infrastructure he has in place to fabricate and transport a piece of large-scale sculpture like Coloring Book #4 by the arena’s opening day in October 2016. Those qualifications are rarer than you’d think, and they’re priced accordingly.

Another reality is that for Willis and other arts administrators familiar with the process, it’s practically unheard of for cities to earmark this volume of public art resources to local artists the way Sacramento has with the arena. (It’s illegal to geographically restrict public “percent for art” funds; Sacramento is able to do it only because of—and only with—Friedman’s private $1 million donation.) Generally, cities don’t need to set boundaries, because professional artists want cross-pollination between cities and regions: It means a wider range of possible outlets for one’s work. And the majority of calls for public artwork are regionally self-selecting anyway; a $5,000 commission in Pittsburgh isn’t likely worth the trouble for an artist from Sacramento.

Not that Pittsburgh wouldn’t welcome it.