If the Sacramento Kings were looking to elicit strong opinions with the selection of an $8 million sculpture for their new downtown arena, they’ve succeeded.
Social media, Kings fans and the local art world have buzzed with emotions ranging from disgust to joy in the days since the Kings, the city of Sacramento and local art officials announced they had picked a sculpture by world-renowned New York artist Jeff Koons as the centerpiece for the arena’s public plaza.
The sculpture is the fifth in Koons’ “Coloring Book” series. The pieces are inspired by a young child coloring outside the lines over the image of Piglet, a character from the “Winnie the Pooh” books. The piece will be 18 feet tall and would be the first Koons sculpture owned by a municipality.
On Tuesday, more than a dozen local artists lambasted the City Council about the choice. A Facebook page called “Artists and friends in support of local Artists” formed last weekend in opposition to the idea and has 372 members.
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The main complaint from those who don’t like the choice is that local artists are being pushed aside in favor of an out-of-town artist whose pieces sell for prices that are outlandish by Sacramento standards.
“We were promised the public art (at the arena) would be a representation of the culture and identity of Sacramento,” artist Linton Borden told the City Council. “And for one artist who has no connections really to Sacramento at all to represent the identity and culture of people of Sacramento, it’s kind of outrageous.”
Supporters of the Koons choice point out that the public art budget for the arena also includes $1.5 million for local art. That’s believed to be the largest single contribution to local public art in the city’s history. As for the giant Piglet, they say it will become an instant landmark for the city.
What’s more, supporters said, the selection of the Koons sculpture has sparked a heightened level of debate about art normally seen in places like Paris and New York.
“One of the most relevant things about this entire controversy is that people are talking about art, and they’re talking about it with passion,” said David Sobon, a leading art collector and auctioneer in Sacramento. “Whether you have an appreciation or a distaste for the piece and the process, people are talking about it.”
The City Council is scheduled to vote next week on whether to approve a contract with Koons and his gallery. Under the terms of the contract, the city and Kings would buy the sculpture for $7.5 million and spend another $500,000 on shipping and maintenance costs.
Of the money being spent on the Koons piece, $2.5 million would come from revenue bonds issued by the city for the construction of the $477 million arena. Another $2.5 million would come from the Kings. The remaining $3 million comprises $1 million donations by Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive and team minority owners Kevin Nagle and Phil Oates.
Lial Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum and one of nine panelists appointed by the Kings and the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission to recommend art for the arena, said the Koons sculpture met the criteria for the project. She said it would be “a central, iconic piece that will be a focal point” for the arena plaza and can be completed in time for the arena’s opening in 2016.
“It’s a piece that is engaging and becomes lively with the movement of a public space,” Jones said, adding that the playful nature of the inspiration for the sculpture was “a great embodiment” of what the city hopes to achieve with the arena.
In addition to the Koons budget, Sacramento art patron and philanthropist Marcy Friedman is donating another $1 million for local art at the arena. The Kings and the city would contribute $250,000 each to that funding.
Sobon said that donation is unprecedented in Sacramento. In the last 30 years, he said, only three local artists have received commissions for public art of at least $250,000. Hee said the most expensive local art work he has auctioned was $25,000 – and it didn’t end up with a buyer.
“There is so much room in that $1.5 million for local artists to get accepted and get their work in a public space,” he said.
For some of the artists who showed up at City Hall on Tuesday, that doesn’t seem to be enough.
Merle Axelrad, a prominent local artist whose work is featured at City Hall and the state Environmental Protection Agency building, was one of those who had sharp criticism for the City Council.
“I would like to see a more open call for artists,” she said in an interview. “The goal for the city should be to get the best possible art, and I’m not sure Koons is it.”
David Garibaldi, a Sacramento performance artist who is receiving national recognition, took to social media last week with his own criticism of the selection. He said in an interview that the arena project and the fight to keep the Kings in town symbolize the city’s spirit – and that the public art at the facility should reflect that.
“It’s a breathtaking piece and Koons is an amazing artist,” Garibaldi said. “But I don’t believe it’s the right statement to make for our city. Everywhere I go, cities are proud of what they’ve done and they express it through art. Ours is an important story to tell, and this is an opportunity to make that statement.”
Raphael Delgado, a painter and sculptor from Sacramento, said the Koons artwork will make a statement and will elevate the city’s standing in the art world.
“I think it’s crucial the city get involved and participates in the global international contemporary art market,” he said. “In Sacramento, we could literally be on the same playing field (as other major art markets) with work from the international superstar Jeff Koons.”
City Council members recognize how controversial the issue has become. After the local artists finished with their criticism, the only member of the council to speak was Mayor Kevin Johnson, who briefly thanked the crowd and said their voices were “pretty clear.”
Following the meeting, Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the central city, said some of the artists’ concerns “were reasonable.”
“I want to hear the diversity of opinions,” he said. “What you saw (Tuesday) was a passion for our city, but it’s sad that this piece has become divisive.”
Councilman Allen Warren added that he thought “controversy is good for art.”
“We’ve heard from people who are clearly shocked by the money (being spent on the Koons sculpture),” he said. “Any time money is on the table, people feel they should have an opportunity to participate.”
Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat.