Deal for public art at arena is too good to pass up

A version of the “Coloring Book” sculpture by Jeff Koons proposed for the arena in downtown Sacramento was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
A version of the “Coloring Book” sculpture by Jeff Koons proposed for the arena in downtown Sacramento was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Rex Features

Everyone wants to play art critic. But when it comes to the signature public artwork proposed for the new arena in downtown Sacramento, City Council members should resist the temptation.

As they wade into this issue Tuesday night, there’s no good reason to overturn the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, which is recommending a sculpture by renowned artist Jeff Koons that the city could snag thanks to the generosity of four private donors.

This is a deal too good to pass up for what is the biggest investment ever in the city’s art in public places program.

Under the plan announced Thursday by the city and Sacramento Kings, there will be $9.5 million available for art at the arena – $5.5 million from the public art allocation paid by the Kings (2 percent of the arena’s construction cost), plus $4 million from private donors.

Of that total, $7.5 million would go for the sculpture, plus $500,000 for installation and maintenance. This is crucial – the remaining $1.5 million would be set aside for local and regional artists, who would compete to have smaller pieces inside the arena and possibly on the public plaza outside.

The chosen sculpture is the fifth in Koons’ “Coloring Book” series – 18 feet tall, 9 feet wide and made of stainless steel and a transparent, reflective coating. Others have been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but Sacramento’s would be uniquely colored.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but art is supposed to be provocative. The “red rabbit” at Sacramento International Airport caused a stir when county supervisors approved it on a 3-2 vote in 2008, but it’s now a conversation piece.

The Koons sculpture would be a focal point of the public plaza in front of the arena and has the potential to become an iconic landmark. And it just might put Sacramento on the art world map. While it isn’t the artist’s most celebrated work, or his most valuable, officials say it would be the only Koons piece that is owned by a city and on permanent public display.

While it’s true that Koons isn’t from around here, it would be awfully parochial to hold that against him. And it’s not as if local artists are being completely frozen out.

When the Koons piece – and the private money – emerged as a possibility late last year, a planned open competition didn’t happen. That seems like a small loss for the potential gain.

Council members are set to vote March 10 on the contract with Koons. There needn’t be the kind of drawn-out debate that has happened in other communities when a high-profile piece of public art is unveiled. If they dawdle too much, Koons could take his piece elsewhere – and the donations with it.

Three Kings owners – principal owner Vivek Ranadive, Kevin Nagle and Phil Oates – have agreed to put in $1 million each for the sculpture, while philanthropist Marcy Friedman is chipping in $1 million toward the local art allocation. In return, they’ll get tax write-offs.

The sculpture was endorsed by a nine-member selection panel, then by the arts commission board in November with only one dissenting vote. Council members should trust the experts.

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