Sacramento can do better than ‘plop art’ for arena if it holds an open competition

An artist’s rendering shows the proposed Jeff Koons sculpture in front of the new downtown arena.
An artist’s rendering shows the proposed Jeff Koons sculpture in front of the new downtown arena. Sacramento Kings

I have questions about the proposed artwork for the downtown arena plaza. It’s not my intention to be the spokesperson for local artists; I speak only for myself.

I don’t agree that all the arena art should be local. Why? Because if every city limited their public art to only local artists, there would be a logical conclusion: Sacramento artists would eventually be limited to only local art projects. I’m currently working on a large sculpture for Los Angeles County, and am glad to have that opportunity despite not being an L.A. artist.

However, I do believe local artists should not be limited to only areas reserved for local artwork. We should also be allowed to compete in all national and international calls for artists in Sacramento.

In the original arena public art budget, $3.5 million was earmarked for plaza artwork. That is a significant amount of money. With an open competition for all artists, we might have seen something amazing designed specifically for that space and use. The opposite has happened.

Art that is just purchased and “plopped” somewhere is called “plop art.” The sculpture by Jeff Koons – part of his “Coloring Book” series and inspired by a child’s drawing of Piglet from “Winnie the Pooh” – is plop art.

This raises the question of how it was chosen. While there is precedent for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission making direct purchases rather than commissioning artwork, it’s never been for such a monumental piece. When the Gagosian Gallery said that the Koons sculpture was available for a limited time only, the arts commission jumped on it.

But why? Because the artist is famous? Because some members of the panel are enamored by Koons? Because Koons has sold his artwork for higher prices than any other living artist? Because if it’s expensive, it must be good?

Some say that the Koons sculpture will attract visitors to Sacramento. I have my doubts. The arena version will be the fifth edition Koons has produced. There is not one original. They are just colored differently.

Some say we didn’t have time to commission a major artwork before the arena opens in October 2016; the only option was to purchase existing art. Yet Koons has a six-month grace period in the proposed contract before the City Council on Tuesday night.

Why not use some of that six months’ leeway now and see what we might get in an open competition? Also, if time truly permits only a direct purchase, $8 million could buy lots of amazing art. The budget includes $3 million in generous private donations; would the donors reconsider making their money contingent on the selection of this particular Koons sculpture?

The goal is to get the best art possible. The question is: Is this sculpture the best we can do?

Another major issue is maintenance. The sculpture’s highly touted reflective finish was not designed for permanent exterior installation. The maintenance manual states: “When the sculpture is exposed to the elements, the surface may become lusterless and matte, stained or may decompose.”

While the manual does say it is “suitable for outdoor display,” it also says the sculpture should not be touched in the regular course of display. No sculpture in this series has yet to be permanently installed outdoors. A special coating is being added to protect it from graffiti, but again, there is no guarantee. Would you purchase an $8 million item with no guarantees?

In every public art project I’ve ever created, I’ve had to show that it could last 20 to 25 years, and a conservator has had to approve that claim. Why not hold the Koons sculpture to that same standard?

Finally, is Sacramento opening itself up to legal problems? Piglet is a Disney character, and Koons has been successfully sued for copyright infringement. If there’s a copyright issue here, could city taxpayers be liable?

I hope the City Council will carefully consider the questions raised here.

Merle Axelrad is a Sacramento artist whose work is featured at City Hall and the state Environmental Protection Agency building.

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