Coloring Outside the Lines

For the plaza outside the new Kings arena, Sacramento pulled out all the stops and spent $8 million to land Jeff Koons’ sculpture "Coloring Book" in what was the art world equivalent of a No. 1 draft pick—expensive and potentially game-changing. Here’s the behind-the-scenes look at how fate, fortunes and family connections came together to make it possible.

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A version of "Coloring Book" was on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. (Photo by Erika Sequeira/@sakiwaki)
 

A“A 5-year-old could draw that!”

Someone will inevitably point to the new Jeff Koons sculpture outside Golden 1 Center and utter the most clichéd response to contemporary art in the book. In this particular instance, though, they’ll be absolutely right.

The 18-foot-tall sculpture is called Coloring Book, and it loosely depicts a greatly abstracted image of Piglet holding a shovel from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, as colored by a child, so it’s almost a dead certainty that Koons is trying to elicit that response deliberately.

For his part, Koons has claimed that there is no irony in his work. No critical depth. It’s meant to be appreciated for what it is, not parsed for what it means.

Coloring Book, from a series of large-scale sculptures and paintings called “Celebration” that includes Koons’ famous Balloon Dog, Puppy, Tulips and Play-Doh, is chromium steel polished to a high gloss and “colored” in vivid, translucent tones. Its undulating, chromatic surface shimmers and reflects its surroundings, tricking the eye into thinking it may be transparent, or even liquid, or be in motion. Whether you admire Koons’ artistry or think him a charlatan (more on that later), Coloring Book (one of five differently colored variations) is visually entrancing as an object.

In many ways, Koons’ celebratory and unironic sculpture is the perfect artwork to grace the new Kings arena, with sports being one of the few avenues of life where adults allow themselves to be shamelessly emotional and childlike. To express unbridled enthusiasm. To be ridiculously sincere. To be publicly heartbroken. And here comes Koons, inviting you to react to his art the way you’d react to Boogie Cousins sinking a three–pointer at the buzzer: with unfettered, uncomplicated joy.

The path Coloring Book took to arrive at Downtown Commons, aka DoCo, is not at all uncomplicated, however. The origin story is an exercise in serendipity and synchronicity, a perfect storm of coincidences that conspired to create one of the most extraordinary opportunities for philanthropic visioning in the history of the capital city.

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In June 2014, at a Crocker museum auction, Marcy Friedman—a painter herself and prominent doyenne of the local art scene who was on the committee formed to select the public artworks in and around the arena—bid on and won a tour of the Koons studio in New York and a private viewing of that year’s Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Marcy, the widow of prominent attorney and real estate developer Mort Friedman, had long been an instigator of civic improvement. She and Mort had been instrumental in luring retail giant Nordstrom to open a store at their Arden Fair mall in the 1970s, ushering in a new era of stylishness, and they chaired the fundraising committee for the Crocker’s 100,000-square-foot expansion, which opened in 2010, donating $10 million themselves.

The reason the Sacramento museum was able to obtain such a splendid and unusual offering in the first place was that Koons’ mother-in-law lives in Sacramento, and had helped arrange the donation, as a good friend of hers worked on the auction. Jeff and his wife, Justine, have been known to visit the area with their six children. So Koons, while not a Sacramento resident, is a resident-in-law.

A rendering of the Golden 1 Center plaza features "Coloring Book" as the space’s centerpiece. (Courtesy of the Sacramento Kings)

That September, Marcy and two of her three sons took the Koons studio tour, including Mark Friedman, the developer of Golden 1 Center. Marcy was “blown away” by what they saw in the gleaming white 10,000-square-foot Manhattan workspace staffed by over 100 assistants painting, polishing and assembling art. “It really opened my eyes to what an important and transformational artist Koons is,” adds Mark.

The tour they both describe sounds like Charlie’s romp through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with Koons as the impish impresario Marcy depicts as “very sweet and charming.”

Her son Mark was further struck by Koons’ perfectionism. “He was working on his Hulk Elvis series, which [includes] giant inflatable Hulks,” Mark recalls. “He was walking around and there were people with jeweler’s loupes and pieces of sandpaper the size of my thumbnail polishing microscopic imperfections. The level of execution was stunning.”

Pieces of metal sculptures lay about, offering a glimpse into the internal workings below Koons’ sleek surfaces. The degree of complexity impressed Marcy. “It’s [polychromed bronze] that’s made to look exactly like plastic,” she says, describing the Hulk statues. “It almost looked like a plumbing workshop or automobile assembly line, with all of these pipes and brass and stainless steel fittings.”

But it was at the Whitney retrospective, which the family visited on a Tuesday when the museum is closed to the public, where Marcy bonded with a piece that, like Coloring Book, belonged to Koons’ “Celebration” series: a 10-foot-tall aluminum reproduction of a pile of Play-Doh. “There was this connection to something you know so well,” she says. “You remember the smell of Play-Doh, the pliability of it. It was so evocative of childhood that it was pretty hard not to fall in love with it.”

In many ways, Koons’ celebratory and unironic sculpture is the perfect artwork to grace the new Kings arena, with sports being one of the few avenues of life where adults allow themselves to be shamelessly emotional and childlike. To express unbridled enthusiasm. To be publicly heartbroken.

A few weeks after the Friedmans returned from New York, Vivek Ranadivé, principal owner of the Kings, ran into Mark and said excitedly that someone from Koons’ gallery had contacted him after hearing that Sacramento was in the market for public art and mentioned the availability of a new version of a piece he adored, Coloring Book. Did Mark happen to know the sculpture?

Mark thought the particular work in question fulfilled his vision for public art at the arena. “I knew we needed something that was monumental and colorful to stand up in that environment, because the building itself, architecturally, was very strong,” Mark says. “It’s going to be in a really visually dense environment, so you needed something with the power to stand on its own.”

Not to mention that other iterations of Coloring Book have been on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Royal Academy in London. It is an important piece of art by international standards.

Mark immediately emailed his mother. “My comment was, ‘Wow!’ ” Marcy says. “And, ‘How much is it?’ Because we all knew what Koons was selling for. Balloon Dog sold for $58.4 million, the record for a living artist.”

Jeff Koons with a toy version of his "Lobster" sculpture (Portrait by Martin Schoeller/August)

That was the hitch: Coloring Book’s price tag was $8 million—or $2.5 million more than the existing budget for the arena’s public art program. But with the Friedmans’ enthusiastic support, Ranadivé and Kings minority owners Phil Oates and Kevin Nagle each chipped in $1 million and approached the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission (SMAC), which was in charge of overseeing public art in and around the new arena, with a proposition: We’ll put up the extra money if you make a direct purchase of this particular artwork, skipping the usual call for submissions and competitive bidding process.

SMAC’s arena art selection committee was keen on the idea, voting overwhelmingly to bring the proposal in front of the city council for approval.

But when word got out, to the astonishment and dismay of everyone involved, the local art community erupted in a furor. This sudden move to make a purchase without a call to consider other options created a tempest in a teapot with a group of area artists who objected vociferously to the acquisition all over social media, for a host of disparate reasons: the funds should have gone to Sacramento artists; the artwork itself wasn’t relevant to the city; the selection process should have been competitive; that much money shouldn’t go to art at all but to social programs or schools.