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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The glass mosaic "A Fragment of the Universe" by Sacramento artist Joan Moment was also included in the airport terminal’s $8 million public art project. (Photo by Jeremy Sykes)

“I understand why people have a knee-jerk reaction and say, ‘We should only be working with local artists,’ ” says Renee Piechocki, the director of the office of public art at the Pittsburgh Arts Council. “It gets to the whole [appeal of] local food, local everything. But I don’t know many artists who want to have a geographic restriction where they can work. Artists want to have the most opportunities they can get. If your best artist in Sacramento gets an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, why shouldn’t they say yes?” (In fact, Joan Moment and the legendary Wayne Thiebaud are two Sacramento artists who have done exactly that at the Whitney.) Ultimately, Piechocki says, artists should apply for sites where they’re the best fit, geography notwithstanding. “I don’t only want to look at artwork by local artists,” she adds. “I want to look at artwork by great artists.”

Interestingly, Pittsburgh, a city roughly the same size as Sacramento, boasts a marvelous precedent for a major public art project that successfully blends both local and national artists, as well as private and public funding. In 1998, the city’s Sports & Exhibition Authority launched a $2 million public art initiative for the renovation of its David L. Lawrence Convention Center. A panel selected the celebrated New York-based artist Jenny Holzer to create its anchor for the project (an $875,000 LED projection that scrolled the text of books about Pittsburgh), while Chicago-based sculptor Tony Tasset and five artists from around the Steel City—out of roughly 200 who applied—provided the remaining artwork. The local commissions totaled $150,000. Meanwhile, another $125,000 was allocated to a purchase program for paintings, drawings, photography, sculptures and other existing work by Pittsburgh artists.

“Not everyone works in giant steel or polished coloring book figures,” Piechocki says of the regional commissions. “It was a way to give visitors to the convention center an idea of the talent that we have in our region.”

One massive difference distinguishes the Pittsburgh case study from Sacramento’s present-day: Pittsburgh had five years to plan, purchase and install public art for the refashioned convention center. This type of advance work is common in public art situations from Chicago’s Millennium Park to our own airport, whose development afforded Willis three and a half years to coordinate art for Terminal B. In the case of the arena, the building was going vertical for months before Marcy Friedman’s donation was even announced.

“I understand why people say, ‘We should only be working with local artists,’ ” says Renee Piechocki of the Pittsburgh Arts Council. “It gets to the whole [appeal of] local food, local everything. [But] I don’t only want to look at artwork by local artists. I want to look at artwork by great artists."

 

This has led to another of Willis’ hard realities, in which she and the panel have to jockey for dibs on prime art sites like the arena’s escalator wells—which the Kings’ sponsorship team could just as easily claim for a more lucrative rotation of advertisements. “You’re working with this live thing that’s happening,” Willis explains. “So, as time passes, opportunities disappear or become more expensive.”

The time crunch would be brutal enough in a city overrun with experienced public artists. In Sacramento, however, it portends perhaps the hardest reality of all: Suddenly, the quickly moving arena plaza has become a testing ground for local artists who have never worked on such a scale.

Their success is hardly impossible or even all that improbable: In 1981, Maya Lin was a Yale undergraduate with no professional experience (let alone a public art track record) when she submitted her design for what would eventually become the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Pittsburgh’s artists rose to the public art challenge more than a decade ago for the city’s convention center: “We were afraid that Pittsburgh artists wouldn’t have the expertise to develop proposals,” said one Heinz Endowment executive after the works debuted in 2003. “But it turned out much better than we expected. People were really serious.”

Moreover, the Koons deal actually benefits Sacramento-area artists in a way they wouldn’t likely have encountered without him: The original $5.5 million budget for arena art didn’t promise a dime to local creatives. The expanded $9.5 million budget—boosted by the $3 million from Ranadivé, Nagle and Oates, as well as Friedman’s $1 million donation that limits eligibility to artists from 19 Northern California counties—essentially does make that promise. It’s true that these counties include more seasoned public artist hotbeds like San Francisco and Alameda, which raises the distinct (and possibly scandalous) possibility that art from Sacramento and its surrounding counties still may not make the arena cut. (Complicating matters further, the remaining $500,000 of the total $1.5 million for “local” art is public money that cannot legally be restricted to the Sacramento region.)

Three of Jeff Koons’ sculptures—including "Coloring Book," which is based on the character Piglet from "Winnie the Pooh"—were displayed on the roof garden of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. (Photo by Erika Sequeira/@sakiwaki)However, that 19-county condition also ensures one huge advantage that artists wouldn’t have had otherwise: a one-on-one audience with the city’s creative placemakers. For starters, Willis says she and her staff intend to target the arena art panel’s outreach and marketing efforts to artists based around Sacramento. This spring, SMAC offers free workshops and tutorials where public art curators from Sacramento and elsewhere will review artists’ portfolios and help them polish their pitches. “Let’s say the Koons thing hadn’t happened,” says Liv Moe, executive director of Verge Center for the Arts, the downtown venue hosting the arts commission’s series of public art workshops. “You would have had a random slew of commissions that would have been available. I keep trying to tell these guys [who are upset]: Big picture! Big picture!”

Most importantly, if selected for the plaza, their art will have one of the world’s most famous and conspicuous neighbors in Jeff Koons—the kind of visibility and magnet that has some Sacramento artists wondering what anyone really has to complain about.

“Suppose you’re a local artist, and you get one of the commissions to put work outside the arena as well,” says Milton Bowens, a Roseville-based arts educator and mixed-media artist who spoke passionately in support of the Coloring Book #4 purchase at March’s city council meeting. “You might not be in front of the arena like Jeff Koons is, but you’ll be on the side. Your résumé is going to shoot through the roof because you’re going to be compared to a living master. Artists have got to put their best foot forward.”

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Until the artwork takes shape against the landscape, of course, the true big picture for Sacramento is anyone’s guess. Civic leaders often forecast the windfalls of local jobs and revenue they expect after public investments on facilities like the Entertainment & Sports Center. Sometimes they even present data and projections to back it up and calm skeptics. Even in cities that have invested heavily in public art—experts commonly cite Chicago, New York City, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Francisco as leaders in the field—the art’s broader cultural or economic impacts don’t initially receive the same benefit of the doubt, for one significant reason.

“It’s free,” says Patricia Walsh, the public art programs manager for Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy and support organization based in Washington, D.C. “There are no tickets to sell. It’s hard to count how many people see it. The quantifying part of it is hard to nail down. Hopefully one of these days we’ll come up with a way to evaluate public art on that level. At this point, as far as I know, there isn’t any template or matrix that does that.”

That said, studies done on Millennium Park in Chicago—home of the wildly popular Cloud Gate and its celebrated, water-spouting companion piece Crown Fountain—could offer an instructive case study in how a major urban development project with the right art can stir waves of growth in the city around it. Roughly like Sacramento’s arena, the park project cost $490 million. In Chicago, 1.33 percent of the park’s construction cost went to public art; also like Sacramento, the remainder of the sculptures’ combined $40 million cost was furnished by private donations. Between 2004, when the park opened, and 2011, the surrounding area witnessed an estimated $1.85 billion in residential development. (Meanwhile, in Sacramento, more public art will be found in a similar residential district that is already under way on K Street, where a $55.4 million redevelopment project promises 137 units of both affordable and market-rate housing.) Overall real estate values around Millennium Park are estimated to have climbed by at least $100 per square foot over the last decade, and the park remains a cultural hub for locals and tourists alike.

And then there’s what Koons and the arena art can mean for institutions like the Crocker Art Museum, whose mission is more explicitly dependent on getting visitors through the door. When you ask museum director (and member of the arena art panel) Lial Jones about this impact, she has her own big picture in mind—literally. It’s affixed to her office wall on the museum’s second floor: a large map of the downtown grid with a photocopy of the arena plaza schematic taped over the blocks where construction crews are hard at work a half-mile away.

“Capitol Mall is right here,” she says, gesturing to the six-block thoroughfare west of the Capitol. With that, Jones begins tracing an imagined art walk through downtown. It starts with the sculptures and monuments already established in Capitol Park, then meanders down the Mall, which would house various pieces and installations on its median. She taps the arena schematic with her right hand—indicating Coloring Book #4 and the rest of the plaza’s public art collection—then ranges over to the Crocker, where visitors could view another piece before checking out the museum. She winds up the imagined journey by floating her hand across the Sacramento River.

"La Feuille," a 20-foot-tall stainless steel piece by local artist Marc Foster that depicts two leaves, will be the centerpiece of the soon-to-be-opened McKinley Village housing development in East Sacramento. (Rendering by Greg Taylor, courtesy of Marc Foster)

“There’s already work at Raley Field and in front of City Hall in West Sacramento,” Jones says. “Then you start to actually put together a really nice [arts] destination. It doesn’t exist yet, in full concept, but it’s something that we can be growing toward. It’s an opportunity that’s kind of presented itself, as long as we look at it and say, ‘Yeah—let’s make it happen.’”

Shelly Willis has her own version of Sacramento’s arts future, some conjuring her great love of temporary installations. Last year’s virtual-reality project Broadway Augmented, for example, used image-recognition technology and a free smartphone app to superimpose 15 digital, 3-D artworks over a handful of locations along its namesake street. Such a project could just as easily transform the arena plaza for new or even repeat visitors. Either way, she predicts, Coloring Book #4 will transcend the fear, loathing and controversy that has preceded it. “[People] are not going to care how much it cost, or how much came from the donors or how much came from the city,” Willis says. “They’re just going to want to sit by it. They’re going to want to get their picture in front of it. They’re going to want to be awed by it. They’re going to want to meet somebody at it. It starts to have these other kinds of functions that art should have in the public realm. They’re going to say, ‘That’s art?’ Maybe a kid says, ‘That’s inspiring. I want to go make something now.’ ”

Meanwhile, Merle Axelrad singles out Sacramento artist Marc Foster and his sculpture La Feuille—the public art centerpiece of the forthcoming McKinley Village community in East Sacramento—as an example of the vision and elegance that could have been at the arena. “It’s going to look gorgeous,” Axelrad says of La Feuille, which is planned at 20 feet tall—two feet taller than Coloring Book #4. “It’s mirror-polished stainless steel. It’s these two leaves that will reflect everything. The plan of McKinley Village is like a leaf, so it works on different levels. And then there are these roots that go way out and come up and act as benches.” The project’s cost, according to Shelly Willis, who is managing La Feuille for SMAC? $100,000.

Still, all the big pictures cohering around Sacramento’s public art legacy—from established work like Indo Arch and Leap to the jagged seismograph of reactions around Koons and the arena—will remain inherently abstract until each new creation settles in amid the city rising around it.

Until then, there is Koons and our $8 million conversation. There are his arena neighbors-to-be. There is inspiration and will and fortitude and luck. And there is the power, resilience and evanescence of art itself—the enduring, sometimes crazy belief that what is strange today will be familiar tomorrow. S