49ers with Matt Barrows

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Portrait of the (sack) artist: 49ers to unveil stadium art collection

07/31/2014 6:39 PM

08/02/2014 5:29 PM

Look out, Jerry Jones. You have competition.

No, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys hasn’t had a winning team in four seasons. But his stadium set the NFL standard when it opened in 2009, not just for its Texas-size grandeur but because Jones was able to elevate AT&T Stadium beyond a venue to watch football games.

His contemporary art collection – a wall by French abstract painter Daniel Buren here, an Anish Kapoor sculpture there – has made it a destination in the Dallas art world. Guided tours last an hour and 15 minutes, tickets cost $22 and visitors arrive year-round.

The 49ers today will unveil their own art collection at Levi’s Stadium, one that includes 200 original pieces as well as 500 dazzling photographs, some that were unearthed from shoe boxes and filing cabinets and haven’t been seen for more than a half-century.

The 49ers’ collection is softer and more subtle than Jones’ high-concept art – the Kapoor sculpture in Dallas cost $14 million and weighs 23 tons – and hits on two themes, the history of the franchise and the beauty of Northern California.

Gorgeous black-and-white photos of Joe Montana, Steve Young and Bill Walsh abound. There also is commissioned artwork, mostly by local artists, ranging in subject matter from a surf series about Mavericks to John Steinbeck to the Summer of Love.

“You can do high-end art, and it can depict sports and the environment and still be fine art,” said Tracie Speca-Ventura, founder of Sports & the Arts, which has handled art at venues such as Yankee Stadium and Marlins Park and has drawn interest from the Kings about their new arena.

“Everyone looks down on sports art,” she said. “So that’s what my fight was, and it’s something the 49ers really got behind. The (York family) became invested and so did management. It became very intimate with this building.”

The 49ers Museum, which is part of the stadium, will open later this month, as will a restaurant run by chef Michael Mina. The goal, as with the Cowboys’ stadium on the Texas plains, is to make Levi’s Stadium a must-stop spot in Silicon Valley, even when football is out of season. Stadium tours will cost $25; entry to the museum will be $15; and a combined ticket will be $35.

The black-and-white photos, which have been enlarged and printed on aluminum so that they seem to jump from the walls, are sure to evoke memories and emotions from every generation of fan.

In one corridor, there’s a shot of Hall of Fame running back Joe Perry, who passed away in 2011, young and smiling in the team’s locker room. Another shows quarterback John Brodie, behind the two-pronged face mask quarterbacks wore in the 1960s, squinting into the late-afternoon sun. Another has Colin Kaepernick kissing his biceps.

One of team owner Jed York’s favorites is a shot of running back Hugh McElhenny – a trail of dust kicked up behind him – bursting through a huge hole in the defensive line.

“I can’t wait for some of the guys to see those types of pictures,” York said. “I can’t wait for our alumni to see them.”

Sports & the Arts’ Camille Speca, who found and arranged the photographs, said any subject from the mid-1970s until now was easy. Team photographer Michael Zagaris has thousands of photos and kept excellent records. Older shots were more difficult to locate.

Speca’s search took her to the Danville home of the son of one of the team’s first photographers, Frank Rippon, and to the San Francisco Chronicle’s offices, where she pored over old negatives.

“A windowless room in the basement,” she said. “I’ve been to a lot of these places, and that’s always what it is. When we did Yankee Stadium, it was the same thing with the Daily News. These things get relegated to the basement.”

Shots of Kezar Stadium and of some of the first-generation 49ers such as Len Eshmont were particularly challenging.

“I tell you, I think I found two images of him,” she said. “Very hard to find.”

Of the 27 artists featured, 19 are from California. Speca-Ventura said most were found during a call for artists two years ago. One was discovered by serendipity.

Speca-Ventura was in a frame shop in San Jose when she noticed a jazz-inspired piece on the wall. It turned out to be a work by Milton Bowens, who teaches in Sacramento and whose works have been purchased by Mayor Kevin Johnson and by Kings player personnel director Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

“I really wanted something with a pop flavor, and he just fit the bill,” she said. “I had to hunt him down.”

Speca-Ventura eventually commissioned three pieces by Bowens.

“It was right up my alley because I love to paint large,” Bowens said. “So when she told me they wanted big pieces, I was really excited.”

The piece that has gotten the most attention is called “The Architect of the West Coast Offense” and is a tribute to Walsh. The piece incorporates the play – the actual X’s and O’s – that Walsh drew up for his most famous call, the “The Catch,” in 1982.

“I just think that the West Coast offense changed football as a whole, and it was a really good story,” Bowens said. “You would hear people talk about the West Coast offense, and I was always intrigued by how to explain that visually.”

Like many pieces at Levi’s Stadium, Bowens’ work on Walsh is part of a vignette that tells a story about a figure or an event. “The Architect of the West Coast Offense” is flanked by photographs of and about Walsh, including one of fans with a sign on a chain-link fence that says, “We love you, Bill Walsh.”

Speca-Ventura said that one of the workmen putting the finishing touches on the stadium recently stopped, studied the photo and gushed about what an amazing shot it was.

“It goes back to, art’s not for the elitist,” she said. “Art can really be for the people. We are all impacted by it. Especially with photography. It captures a moment and an era.”

About This Blog

Matt Barrows was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Sacramento Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the San Francisco 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green. Reach Barrows at mbarrows@sacbee.com.
Twitter: @mattbarrows

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