Shelly Willis signed for quite a package earlier this month. It was 18 feet tall, weighed 11,000 pounds and was worth $8 million.
The delivery of artist Jeff Koons’ sculpture outside the new Golden 1 Center was the culmination of a nearly two-year journey in which Willis and others maneuvered political minefields, juggled the wants and criticisms of local artists, and raised the cash to support the largest investment in public art this city has ever seen.
The fruits of that investment will be on display Monday, when city leaders and Sacramento Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive uncover Koons’ sculpture from the “Coloring Book” series. They’ll also unveil works by Sacramento artists Gale Hart and Bryan Valenzuela, and a sound piece by San Francisco’s Bill Fontana.
“This is really an historic moment,” Willis, chairwoman of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, said last week. And she wasn’t just talking about Monday.
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Think of all the things that have happened in the local art world since the City Council voted in March 2015 to approve the purchase of the Koons sculpture.
Art Hotel brought hundreds of awe-struck spectators to a rundown apartment building downtown. Hundreds more toured the alleys and sidewalks of the central city to witness the first Sacramento Mural Festival. Two young powerhouse artists finished a stunning mural under the W/X freeway that’s enjoyed by the enormous crowds of the weekly farmer’s market. Homegrown artists got recognition and shows across the country and world.
“I think we’ve gone over the tipping point,” Willis said. “You need a few things happening at once to tip the scales.”
Willis thinks the debate that swirled around the Koons piece last year helped serve as a catalyst for this movement. An overflow crowd was at City Hall when the City Council approved the sculpture. Some local artists argued they should have had a crack at the arena centerpiece. Others argued that having a piece by a world-renowned artist was a major coup. Hours before the vote, it was unclear whether the council would support the idea.
“(The Koons debate) gave us an opportunity to talk about our values, to talk about our environment and what we want it to look like, and it gave people the impetus to get together and talk about art,” she said. “And it hasn’t stopped.”
Many credit Willis as the person most responsible for shepherding the city through the Koons process, although it wouldn’t have gotten this far without massive financial investments from people like Ranadive and Kings minority owners Kevin Nagle and Phil Oates. Minority owner Mark Friedman brought the idea of a Koons piece to the arts commission and his mother, arts patron Marcy Friedman, put in another $1 million for the local artwork at the arena.
Starting Monday, Golden 1 Center becomes the city’s newest arts center, showcasing $10 million worth of work. Of course, most of that money – and a lot of the attention – is being spent on the Koons piece.
Willis said Piglet, as the sculpture is known, is “flawless” and “perfectly made.” The early images show a colorful and striking piece juxtaposed in front of a modern and massive sports arena. But how will the public react?
“Only time will tell,” Willis said. “You put something out there and the public owns it. Then either the public embraces it over time or it disappears.”