Viewpoints

Jeff Koons’ ‘Coloring Book’ shouldn’t be city’s only public art

Jeff Koons’ ‘Tulips’ is a conversation-starter at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles.
Jeff Koons’ ‘Tulips’ is a conversation-starter at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles.

I was against a Jeff Koons sculpture at the new arena. Ironic or not, it seemed the equivalent of an expensive lawn gnome in the front yard – until I saw another of his works, “Tulips,” at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles.

Shiny and enticing, with colors no flower has ever come by naturally, it dominates the entrance to the second-floor galleries. It’s impossible to miss, but people don’t want to, anyway.

The seven stems of mirror-polished stainless steel pull visitors closer not just to look, but to play. Young and old, tourist and urbanite, most make funhouse faces into the reflective surfaces, snap selfies, and even, against unspoken rules of L.A. culture, talk to the strangers around them.

It has all the makings of successful public art – including the ability not just to anchor a space, but to create a communal experience. Love it or hate it, our $8 million “Coloring Book” Koons will hopefully have the same impact of generating both interest and interaction.

It has, of course, the benefit of location. Too much of Sacramento’s public art is buried in obscurity. Take “Theatre of the Absorbed,” an installation by CSU Chico professor and artist Sheri Simons that resides in the courtyard of the city utilities building on a lonely stretch of 35th Avenue over in the Pocket.

Fifteen hands, detailed enough that you can guess the gender and age by the taper of the fingers and the folds of wrinkles over the knuckles, were taken from casts of local water treatment workers back in the 1990s.

Disembodied, they jut out of the rounded walls, demanding closer inspection. There are also three fountains, one with a large bronze “inflated form” that would spew water if we weren’t in a drought.

Customers – there was only one on a cloudy afternoon last week – often are curious what it’s supposed to be, says longtime employee Carmen Garcia. To her, it’s just “weird art,” which a lot of art is, but it starts conversations the same way Koons does. Unfortunately, only between citizens who pay their water bills in person.

That’s the fault of our ordinance for the funding of public art, drafted in 1977. It allots 2 percent of the cost of a public building project to commission works – but it ties the art to that location. So Sacramento has a stellar collection, hidden in sewer treatment plants, firehouses and office buildings.

Shelly Willis, head of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, would like to change that and likely will present a proposal to the City Council in coming months. It’s a no-brainer fix that can’t happen soon enough, especially as we spend time and thought on reshaping our core, from the railyard to Capitol Mall.

“Placemaking” is our favorite buzzword at the moment.

Untying this arts funding would go a long way toward paying to put something in these places that make them worth visiting, drawing us together and creating moments of interplay between people and the works themselves. It could also allow funds to be pooled for larger purchases.

Willis says she “can only imagine how many things adding art into that community would accomplish,” from interesting ways to provide directions to philosophical inspiration for residents.

She says she doesn’t expect much opposition to her proposals. It’s more a matter of getting them going while her staff is busy with the arena and creating an art master plan for the city.

The council has supportive members, and the two main mayoral candidates, Angelique Ashby and Darrell Steinberg, say they would be open to the idea. But there’s an art to politics, and Willis says she’s been waiting for a good time.

With the Koons potentially arriving in September, now seems like the shining moment.

Anita Chabria is a regular freelance contributor to The Bee. Contact her at anachabria@gmail.com.

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