Remember Them (Ordinances)

I’ve been watching this the way one watches hornets build a nest right over the kitchen door.

Mario Chiodo was unsuccessful with this design in the public art competition for Mandela Gateway, but the work resonated with some folks, such as Jerry Brown and Ignacio de la Fuente and Peggy Stinnett and Respectalians from the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, who Mario got to pose in a really cool, situationist way… I think. Add the City’s Parks and Rec Commission and the City Planning Commission to the group of supporters.

Getting on board with the work has been easy for politicians: it’s an encylopedic reference to civil rights leaders and humanitarians, from Nelson Mandela to Mother Theresa to Thich Nhat Hanh.

The problem is that no arts-focused body convened by the City has ever approved of the 52 foot by 21 foot bronze sculpture. For well over a year a stand-off has brewed between City officials, who know enough about art to know it when they see it, and the cultural advisors it has appointed and hired to oversee such matters: the Public Art Advisory Committee, the Cultural Affairs Commission, the staff of the Public Art Program at the City’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division, and the newly-formed Gifts Panel.

Meanwhile, Chiodo and supporters of the Monument worked with the Chamber of Commerce to move the project into a private commission of Forest City, the developer at the core of the City’s Uptown Development Area. They have been successful in siting the sculpture in Fox Square Neighborhood Park, which is currently private property… until Forest City gives the park to the City in 2008, and with it the Monument.

Observing this, the Public Art Advisory Committee sent a letter to the Mayor and Council alerting them to an end run around the City’s Public Art Program. The letter argued for a formal review of Monument which would eventually become part of the City’s art collection by a simple act of deeding the property it which it stands on to the City. The Cultural Affairs Commission endorsed the letter, and City staff met with the artist and project backers, who agreed to the review by the City’s Gift Panel.

The panel met on May 31 to review the proposal, look at site plans and imagery, and visit Chiodo’s studio to engage the artist in a discussion where they encountered a posse of project backers, including poet and novelist Guy Johnson. At the end of the day, Monument looks like it’s getting another no vote –albeit a qualified one– from this latest public body.

The report contains some aesthetic recommendations for the work, which are typical with large civic commissions, but centers its declination based on, what else, the numbers. The unfunded portion of the fabrication cost (estimated at $3.5 million) and the ongoing cost of maintaining the safety and condition of a two-story, 50 foot piece of bronze, which the proposal suggests would be covered by sales of an educational DVD.

The report will go to the Public Art Advisory Committee on Monday at 5pm, and insiders aren’t betting that the recommendation will be contested in any way. It should shoot straight to the Cultural Affairs Commission on June 26.

The Thing That Must Be Discovered

What’s at the heart of this debate?

  • Aesthetic differences: the highly representational style of the Monument is in stark contrast to say, The Ladders at  14th Street and Mandela Parkway commemorating the Loma Prieta collapse of the Cypress freeway. Those who align with one style or the other have been known to include a moral superiority while they’re at it.
  • Political correctness: voting down a sculpture that is
    attempting to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, among others, is going to
    require a lot of prelim regardless of the rationality of your argument. Yet this particular work has received plenty of no votes without anyone calling the card… yet.
  • Frustration with City bureaucracy: Public review of art and culture is a time-consuming system erected to protect public interest, with very little attention paid to it until one is not favored by it. Chiodo’s alternative to public funding of the Monument is an important model, even though this particular example seems to be pointing to public funding after all.
  • Contempt for the Contempters: The Monument assaults our sense of fair play, but it should not be the only project to do so. It is merely another example of the Brown Administration appearing to support the arts while holding its own cultural workers and advisors in small regard. With one of the largest concentrations of artists in its borders and at its side, City Hall continues to relegate our functions to titulary rubber stampers while maintining a capricious royal court of aesthetic favorites who will likely triumph regardless of our protests or endorsements. As a participant in the recent Ron Dellums Arts Town Hall pointed out: City Hall has selected artists and arts initiatives based on their sympathy, or susceptibility, to the idea of the arts in service to the Mayor’s economic agenda. Upon reflection this agenda has created as much loss for citizens as it has created opportunity for its investors. The impact on the arts, barring the good fortunes of some of us, is writ large in our own deep-seated divisions.

You all have to, no I’m serious this time, fill out a speaker card for this one.

Oh yeah: all artists need to vote on Tuesday, June 6.

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