A Train of Thought

Sacramento just acquired its first Jeff Koons sculpture, but another is available that was actually inspired by our city’s history. And unlike most trains, its timing couldn’t be better.
Koonstrain Wnh
Image courtesy of Jeff Koons

The Idea
In 2003, celebrated artist Jeff Koons conjured his largest concept for a sculpture yet: a 70-foot train car hanging from a crane standing 160 feet tall. Not only would the train look real—it would be a replica of a steam locomotive—but it would come “alive” a few times a day, its wheels turning, horn blowing, and real steam spouting from the top.

The vision was embraced by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—its director likened Train, as the sculpture’s called, to the Eiffel Tower—but it struggled for years with how to mount and pay for the $25 million-plus work. Then the folks behind Manhattan’s High Line—the heralded elevated train platform turned urban park—decided to pursue the piece for their site in 2012. But that train never left the station either.

Now it’s our turn to bring the piece here as the visual anchor for the railyards. It turns out that the train in question was directly inspired by Koons’ many visits to the California State Railroad Museum, and specifically its 1943 Baldwin 2925 steam locomotive. During his trips to the River City—his mother-in-law lives here—the artist would steal away to study the iron behemoth.

Some have criticized Koons’ Coloring Book near the Kings arena as out of place. No one could make that argument here.

And the timing is perfect. The development of the railyards—home to the planned Railroad Technology Museum—is imminent. If constructed here, it would fittingly become the defining symbol of the railyards, as tall as the Tower Bridge. Yes, $25 million is a lot, but for some perspective, the city has already spent $23 million extending 7th Street through the railyards. It’s a great extension, sure, but not exactly an international draw.

The Players
Here are the people who need to get in the same room: Kings principal owner and professed Koons fan Vivek Ranadivé, Shelly Willis of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission (SMAC), and railyards developers Larry and Denton Kelley.

The Bottom Line
Part of the price tag could come from SMAC’s Art in Public Places program. Part might come from gifts from companies like Kaiser, which is planning a hospital in the railyards. And, just as Kings owners Phil Oates, Kevin Nagle and Ranadivé donated $1 million each towards Coloring Book, perhaps Republic FC owners like Nagle, Warren Smith and Larry Kelley—who hope to build a Major League Soccer stadium at the railyards—could make similar gestures to transform the area into a global destination.

Sacramento is already on the right track when it comes to public art. Let’s make sure we keep moving full steam ahead.

Watch Koons explain Train below (start the video at 1:05).