California Forum

When public art fails

The 25-foot-tall “Rain Curtain” fountain at Golden State Plaza is part of an art project that runs along Capitol Avenue between 15th and 17th streets. The “rain” apparently hasn’t fallen since 2003.
The 25-foot-tall “Rain Curtain” fountain at Golden State Plaza is part of an art project that runs along Capitol Avenue between 15th and 17th streets. The “rain” apparently hasn’t fallen since 2003. Sactown Magazine

In the weeks leading up to the Sacramento City Council vote in March to purchase an $8 million sculpture by Jeff Koons, the city was suddenly overflowing with armchair art critics.

So where were they all in 2003?

That was when the state of California constructed on Capitol Avenue the “East End Complex,” the state’s largest-ever office project, and one that has been widely criticized for its design and lack of urban context at this gateway between Capitol Park and the liveliest section of midtown.

But for all the project’s flaws, the government nobly set out to create a two-block-long plaza filled with the largest state-funded public art installation in California history.

Unfortunately, like the buildings surrounding it, the art installation is equally uninviting, and illustrates the consequences when art is neglected by caretakers who are not curators.

The site, by any definition, is a public art failure as epic as the state it purports to honor.

According to a government catalog devoted to the installation, the space in question is called the Golden State Plaza, and is divided into three sections.

The first, the “Zone of Public Gathering,” sits on Capitol Avenue between 16th and 17th streets. Its primary feature is two 25-foot-tall, L-shaped beams that were intended to “frame” the Capitol with dramatic “rain curtains” – aka falling water.

The problem, however, is that the “rain” apparently hasn’t fallen since 2003. According to the Department of General Services, which oversees state facilities, the rain curtain piece flooded the sidewalk and plaza upon its debut, and so has been dry for nearly all of its 12 years.

The second section is the “Zone of Discovery.” Here, an artist placed 55 steel sculptures, each topped with layers of glass discs meant to reveal “images and texts that recount a fragmentary history of gold.”

The first irony of the “Zone of Discovery” is that the sculptures were originally placed on an uneven grass mound that prevented people with disabilities from discovering them at all. So the state spent $50,000 to build a concrete path to increase access. However, this “fix” provided access to only half of the “translucent sandwiches of human endeavor,” as the catalog describes them. The other 27 or so sculptures remain on the grass where no one can now view the discs because of the signs that warn visitors to “Please remain on designated path.”

Making matters worse, the lights on all 55 pieces no longer function – a sad irony both because they are now unreadable at night but also since they are positioned to represent the bright stars in the night sky on the very day California achieved statehood. They’re virtually unreadable during the day, too. “Reading (the text) is an impressionistic experience,” explains the catalog. In reality, it’s often more impossible than impressionistic. One of the discs is shattered, another piece is damaged by graffiti, and yet another is missing its “translucent sandwich” altogether.

The third section is the “Zone of Transformation.” This space features a concrete bunker-like corridor that contains an anamorph – a painted image that can be seen only from a precise and sadly, unrevealed spot. If, however, one were standing at the correct spot, one might see the vague image of scientist Edwin Hubble (or Edwin Hubbel as it’s misspelled on a nearby plaque). What every visitor can see, though, are the many skateboard marks that have defiled the piece.

Shelly Willis, executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, says that many of the city’s most prominent arts leaders strongly believe that the Golden State Plaza art installation has simply reached the end of the line.

So where’s the good news in all of this?

Willis explains that virtually all public art can be decommissioned and removed – a decision that can often be in the best interests of the community and, in some cases, the artists themselves, especially if the work has been neglected.

“The idea or the concept may be brilliant, but then it just doesn’t manifest itself in the space in the way that it should,” she explains. “Sometimes a work has its life, and that life ends.”

According to the contract provided to the East End Complex artists, the state has the right “at any time and for any reason” to “remove the artwork” or “use the project site for other purposes.”

In 2005, the state turned control of Capitol Mall over to the city. Why not appeal to the state again, and take ownership of the Golden State Plaza for the city?

Then, once the arena and downtown plaza are finished and brimming with new public art, the city can turn this blighted canyon into a blank canvas of creative potential.

Only then will the “Zone of Transformation” truly live up to its name.

Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears in