The wrecking ball looms: Saving Sacramento’s Downtown Plaza art

The shoppers are dwindling, the stores closing. Demolition day is looming. But amid the quiet of Downtown Plaza’s east end, a last-minute rescue mission is ongoing.

At the Sacramento Kings’ request, Sacramento arts officials are exploring what it would take to get several dozen pieces of public art safely out of the mall before the wrecking ball arrives.

“The (Kings) ownership group wants to save as much of the artwork as a possible,” said Shelly Willis, director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, the person tasked with preserving the art. “They want to do the right thing.”

Time is short, though. Demolition could start this summer.

“I’m moving as fast as I can,” Willis said last week. Her task: Determine how the mall’s eclectic gallery of sculptures, wall medallions, tiled fountains and terra cotta panels are constructed and attached to the floors and walls so that they can be deconstructed and removed.

Willis has called local artist Tony Natsoulas for information about his “Balancing Act” sculpture of a running man, one eyebrow cocked, who is precariously balancing a hunk of cheese, a clock and a small house on his head. She’s consulted with Yoshio Taylor for insight into how he constructed “Spherical Discourse,” his ethereal pair of harlequins on pedestals watching over the east entrance.

Willis estimates the mall’s east end holds more than $100,000 worth of art. Her hope, she said, is to salvage it and store it in a warehouse until the arts commission and downtown leaders can come up with new installation sites for it.

Kings and arts officials declined to discuss potential costs or how they will be covered. Team President Chris Granger issued a statement saying the team is “committed to working with partners like the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission both to preserve current art at the site and develop a comprehensive strategy to feature new art” at the new arena.

Many of the largest pieces of public art at Downtown Plaza are safe and will not move. The mural by the Royal Chicano Air Force art group on the Macy’s garage wall, as well as “Clock Tower” by R.N. Fischer and Gerald Walberg’s rusted “Indo Arch” all are at the west end of the mall, which won’t be torn down for the arena.

Other works stand in the heart of the demolition zone, like Natsoulas’ comical sculpture of a seemingly chagrined young man trying to balance life on the run. Natsoulas said he is rooting for Willis and the Kings to find it a new home.

“I love that piece,” he said. “I like the idea of balancing things. It is something that everybody does.”

An architecture preservation group, SacMod, also is asking that a few of the plaza’s 1970s-vintage terra cotta wall panels be preserved. SacMod’s Gretchen Steinberg said those panels, featuring craggy, swirling designs, represent one of the city’s few examples of midcentury brutalist architecture.

Taylor, a Cosumnes River College art instructor, said he has talked with Willis about finding a new site for his pair of ceramic sculptures overlooking Seventh Street, possibly at sculpture gardens near Community Center Theater or Crocker Art Museum.

He also has a proposal waiting for the Kings when they begin drawing up plans for new art at the site. “I would love to have the Kings organization contact me and (commission a new sculpture) somewhere near the new arena.

“That would be great.”

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