Marcos Bretón

Opinion: If the Jeff Koons art made you mad – you probably had your facts wrong

Jeff Koons attends a media preview of “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York last June.
Jeff Koons attends a media preview of “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York last June. The York (Pa.) Daily Record

Art may be in the eyes of the beholder, but public anger over an $8 million piece of art bought by the city of Sacramento was largely misplaced.

Looking at a rendering of the multicolored statue proposed by artist Jeff Koons, some saw an obscenely priced blob. Or they saw red.

Last Tuesday, the council chambers were packed to the rafters and public comments on the Koons choice dragged on for hours. It was an emotional scene, with a few basic questions asked over and over:

Why is the city spending $8 million on Koons’ junk?

How dare the city spend that amount of money on a single piece of art when there are homeless people sleeping on the streets of Sacramento?

Why wasn’t a local artist commissioned to create art for the plaza of the new downtown arena?

It’s completely appropriate to question any major civic investment. But many of the people hurling questions appeared to lack an understanding of the basic facts associated with the selection of Koons’ sculpture, which is modeled on the figure of Piglet, pal to the fictional Winnie-the-Pooh.

Sacramento is not spending $8 million of general fund money to buy the artwork. Most of the money – including $500,000 for upkeep – is coming from a few of the richest people in town.

The Kings have committed $2.5 million to the Koons piece. Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive is contributing $1 million of his own money, as are minority owners Phil Oates and Kevin Nagle.

That leaves Sacramento to contribute $2.5 million. Still sound like too much?

OK, but let’s be clear about where that money is coming from and what it must be used for by city law. The sculpture is not robbing from city parks, public safety or any other civic cost covered by the general fund.

The money for the sculpture is coming from revenue bonds the city will issue to help fund the new arena.

There are many who were opposed to the arena because they objected to the city contributing $255 million to its $477 million cost. But it’s a city project that is moving forward – the biggest the downtown has ever seen. Which brings us to the most misunderstood piece in this tale of people gone mad over public art.

A city ordinance requires that 2 percent of the construction budget for all projects built with city money goes toward public art. This has been the case in Sacramento for more than 30 years.

This money is not set aside for the homeless.

It is not set aside for drug treatment programs.

It is money designated by law for public art. And yet there were speakers at Tuesday’s City Council meeting who seemed confused by this. “Frankly, you should be ashamed of the fact that you are willing to put one $8 million statue in the middle of a city that has thousands of women, children, persons with disabilities and veterans sleeping on the streets every single night,” said Claire Smith, who spoke in opposition to the Koons sculpture.

Her comments drew a hearty round of applause because they sounded good – even though they were inaccurate.

On my Facebook page, very smart people also slammed the Koons piece while saying the money would be “better spent” on programs to treat societal ills.

Ultimately, if you follow that argument to its conclusion, you are saying the city should not spend money on public art.

Is that what you want? It is hard to fathom anyone would answer yes to that question.

A strong case can be made that Sacramento needs to do much more to provide activities and job training to young people in struggling neighborhoods, particularly in south Sacramento, Del Paso Heights and Oak Park.

But that’s a separate argument. People only raised the homeless or city pools in the arena debate when they opposed the arena. In a way, it’s disrespectful – and easy – to scream about the homeless issue when you don’t like a piece of art the city is buying.

What about the issue of giving the Koons commission to a local artist? As artist Thomas Powell said in a recent Bee op-ed: “It has been local artists acting in their own economic self-interest who have been vocally opposed (to the Koons piece).”

Lost in the screaming was that the city secured something very valuable for the money it committed to the Koons sculpture. Local philanthropist Marcy Friedman is donating $1 million to fund local art at the arena. The Kings will chip in $250,000 to that effort, as will the city – meaning that $1.5 million will go to local art. That is by far the largest single donation to local art in the history of the city.

Why weren’t local artists allowed to compete against Koons for the big prize? Because the Kings and the city wanted the Koons piece, which will grow in value if his past work is any judge. His art has been displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Chateau Versailles. He has been honored by heads of state.

Love him or hate him, Koons is in a different category from artists working in Sacramento.

Does that mean Sacramento is more concerned with chasing out-of-town hotshots – an impulse that speaks to long-standing insecurity?

People! It’s one piece of art displayed in one part of town. That piece will leverage a greater investment in local art than we’ve ever seen. It will raise the bar on art and has already sparked weeks of conversation in Sacramento.

This doesn’t signify insecurity. It signifies growth, both in an evolving downtown and in Sacramento’s future. Besides, Sacramento is hardly alone in fighting these types of battles.

In 2006, Chicago unveiled an oddly shaped piece of art called “Cloud Gate,” which cost a whopping $23 million. The massive, stainless steel sculpture in Millennium Park has since been nicknamed “The Bean.” Countless Chicagoans and tourists alike have taken pictures of themselves reflected in its gleaming, concave surface.

The Bean was designed by Anish Kapoor of England – not Chicago – but it nonetheless has become a signature piece on the Chicago lakefront. It is not the symbol of that city; it is one piece that helps create a greater sense of community.

With any luck, the Koons piece will do that for Sacramento. Even better, it may help create other art that will raise the bar even higher as Sacramento embraces a bright future.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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