The Conversation

After Koons, aim for a bigger legacy: Invest in public art created by women

Janet Echelman’s net sculpture, “Her Secret is Patience,” floats above downtown Phoenix.
Janet Echelman’s net sculpture, “Her Secret is Patience,” floats above downtown Phoenix. The Republic

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: What do you think of Janet Echelman’s ethereal sculptures? Should Sacramento commission a celebrated woman artist for the downtown arena? Submit a letter or comment on our Facebook page.

The dust has settled on the news that for a cool $8 million, Sacramento will add a Jeff Koons sculpture to its impressive collection of public art. Installed in front of our new downtown arena, the piece from his “Coloring Book” series will be a signature addition to the cityscape and no doubt will serve as the go-to exterior shot during televised games.

The sculpture, nicknamed “Piglet,” has become another kind of focal point in a spirited community debate about what public art should be, as well as how it is solicited and selected in Sacramento. The Koons acquisition, mostly paid for by an elite and engaged group of Sacramentans, requires $2.5 million in public financing, which will come from the revenue bonds the city must issue to build the arena.

Koons is celebrated and ridiculed for many reasons, including the fact that he hires others to make his work, his subject matter celebrates the banal – and at one point in his career, the pornographic – and that he isn’t a local artist. Love him or hate him, Koons considers the public engagement – or enragement – that swirls around his work as a key component of his art. His bio on his gallery’s website notes: “Jeff Koons’ artworks rarely inspire moderate responses, and this is one signal of the importance of his achievement.”

Spending big bucks on a sculpture by an international art icon offers us a terrific opportunity to leverage the Koons piece – the community debate it inspires and the international attention it will bring to our city – into something that will leave an even bigger legacy. Let’s park “Piglet” in the plaza and earmark the next $8 million in public art dollars for work created by women.

This is about the point where someone intones that “good art should transcend gender.” But as the Koons controversy shows, “good” is a relative term and gender has its own politics to play when it comes to the art world.

Ask locals to name any three pieces of public art in Sacramento and you’re likely to get answers like the red rabbit at the airport; the big stack of luggage, also at the airport; and a variation of the Indo Arch, the bronze in Chavez Park or the statuary by the Convention Center. As it happens, only one of those pieces was made by a woman. Shelly Willis, executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and director of our Public Art Program, tells me that approximately 26 percent of our public art collection is made by women. This number includes many smaller, much less visible works like drawings, photographs and paintings.

Women make up half the population, yet when we venture into our museums and public parks, notable galleries or high-end auction halls; it’s rarely our work that we see on the walls, in the plazas or on the block. According to numbers released last year by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., women make up more than half of the working artists in the country today, but virtually disappear when it comes to representation in the repositories of American culture.

Take art auctions, for example, the high-end kind that put Koons on the curatorial map and helped him to amass a reported net worth of $100 million, making him one of the five richest artists in the world. Work by women artists is the exception and not the rule at this level of exchange. In a review of art auction prices at the end of 2014, Artnews reported that “in the list of the hundred most expensive art works ever sold at auction, there is not a single work by a female artist.”

If you follow the economics of art, you might be asking: What about Georgia O’Keeffe? She made the news last fall when her painting “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” (1932) sold at Sotheby’s for $44.4 million, making it the most expensive painting by a female artist ever sold at auction. The O’Keeffe sale was notable not in that the price of a work by a woman finally surpassed her male counterparts, but in that it finally matched some of them.

Auction prices are only one indicator of an artist’s importance. Another way to determine an artist’s worth is to look at what’s on exhibit in our museums, and here the numbers are just dismal for women artists. According to the same study by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, work by women makes up only 5 percent of the permanent collections of art museums in America and not even a third of the work shown in touring exhibitions.

If women make up more than half the working artists in the country, you wouldn’t know it if you wandered into a top-end commercial gallery like the one that represents Koons. The Gagosian Gallery is actually a behemoth chain of galleries with multiple locations in New York, as well as London, Paris, Beverly Hills, Rome, Athens, Geneva and Hong Kong. Out of the 30 “artists in current exhibitions” listed on the Gagosian website, only four are women.

Galleries and the artists they represent stand to profit handsomely if a coveted solo museum show is landed. A study released just this month found that one-third of the solo museum shows in this country feature artists represented by just five high-end galleries, including the Gagosian.

Auction prices, museum collections and gallery representation offer us a composite picture of an art world that is still, in the 21st century, a man’s world. Like a snake eating its tail, art market conditions and museum acquisitions influence the curators, collectors and movers and shakers who sit on boards and commissions, who make the acquisitions that, in turn, influence the market.

I attended a recent arts commission meeting and listened to the panel discuss what they wanted to accomplish with the remaining budget for public art around the new arena. There was talk of art “activating” the L Street side of the arena, the Fifth Street tunnel and the stretch from Fifth to J Street. It was ground level stuff, and I found myself wondering instead: What would it be like to animate the space above the arena with a sky-high sculpture by TED Talk genius Janet Echelman?

What could be more appropriate above a basketball arena than, well, a gigantic floating basket? If you’ve been to the University of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle or watched the Winter Games in Vancouver, it’s likely you’ve seen Echelman’s ethereal, otherworldly sculptures. When I called her studio and discussed prices with her assistant, I discovered that for a cost of a Koons, we could have two or three Echelmans.

Which brings us to a purely pragmatic reason we should add more women to the roster: We get more for our money because work by women artists – like work by women in every sector of society – goes for pennies on the dollar when compared to men. We can think of public art by women as a class of undervalued assets that makes good investment sense when we’re spending the taxpayers’ dime. As the Wall Street Journal so succinctly put in a recent article about the subject: “A woman’s signature in the bottom corner of a painting has long spelled a bargain.”

I’ve heard time and time again that women artists, especially ones who do larger public artworks, “just aren’t out there.” Nonsense. To find them, we can go the extra mile – like we did with Jeff Koons – or we can look a little harder in our own backyard.

As president of American Women Artists, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing women artists in the U.S. and Canada to the forefront, I’ve had the opportunity to travel the country and see the work of many fine artists who happen to be women with vision and the portfolios to back it up.

Ceramicist Patti Warashina, a key West Coast artist with work in the Smithsonian and Japan’s National Museum of Modern Art, is certainly worth a look. The winds of change might blow in a powder-coated aluminum cyclone by Alice Aycock. Colorado artist Rosetta – who goes by a single name – cast the big bronze cheetahs that race the Amtrak train into the station in Dowagiac, Mich., and she could do the same for our railroad-centric urban core. New Mexico sculptor Liz Wolf brings Native American influences to bear in her haunting, larger-than-life human-animal hybrids. These women represent just a few of the many whose works could bring added depth and value to Sacramento’s art collection for far less than of the cost of a Koons.

It’s probably a safe bet that Jeff Koons didn’t have to attend a Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission workshop, fill out any paperwork or jump through the usual hoops for consideration. If Sacramento is willing to step outside our geographic and bureaucratic boundaries to go after art by Koons, then shouldn’t we be willing to do the same for a female artist? The community conversation inspired by “Coloring Book” is just beginning.

Let’s hope we have the courage and vision to have a parallel discussion about adding more work by women to our public collection. And not just any work, but the kind of big-idea art that gets sited on the prime bits of real estate – the arenas, stadiums and public parks – where it can be seen by many and where it will enrich and broaden the collective narrative of us all.

Kathrine Lemke Waste is a Sacramento-based artist represented by the Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento and Bonner David Galleries in Scottsdale, Ariz. She is president of the board of directors for American Women Artists, a nonprofit organization representing painters and sculptors in the U.S. and Canada.