After looming over, or gracing — depending on your point of view — Interstate 80 from Berkeley’s bicycle and pedestrian bridge for 11 years, the Berkeley Big People sculptures are likely headed for removal.
On July 24, Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission voted to “deaccession” the two works by Emeryville artist and city council member Scott Donahue, which sit at either end of the pedestrian bridge near Aquatic Park. One depicts Berkeley’s history of protest and the other celebrates recreation at the nearby shoreline.
The vote has angered Donahue, who told the commission in an email that its process was “hasty” and designed to “avoid any resistance from me and others who believe the artwork should remain.” He also complained that he was only given a few days notice of the vote, which did not allow him enough time to mount an effective protest.
“How is it that eight members of an appointed board can make such a significant decision, on behalf of an entire city, with essentially no notice to the artist, and without any public input, expert testimony, or approval by the City Council?” Donahue wrote the city. “Public art is inherently controversial because it’s public. A full, public discussion of the artwork’s meaning is necessary.”
Under the Berkeley city code, members of the arts commission have the final authority to select or decommission work. The City Council does not play a role in this process.
Lisa Bullwinkel, the arts commission’s chairwoman, disagreed, saying that Donahue was given “as much time as he wanted to speak” at a July 22 subcommittee meeting where the initial vote to “deaccession” took place as well as at the July 24 meeting of the entire arts commission. “There are a lot of artists on that committee,” Bullwinkle said. “They get how painful this is.”
Donahue’s sculptures have long been controversial. When Berkeley Big People was first inaugurated in October 2008, the then San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker said the works scored “a new black eye on the already battered face of public art in the Bay Area.” Others appreciated the piece, however, including how it celebrated Berkeley’s history: “Whether it’s tree-sitters or the Marines, these are the kinds of things that have put Berkeley on the map the past 40 years,” Lisa Rubens, a historian at the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Project, told SF Gate in 2008. “A monumental piece of artwork like this is a way to give that history some legitimacy, to show it’s not just episodic or hare-brained.”
But while the artistic merit of the sculptures remains a point of debate, the decision by the arts commission is based solely on the financial burden of maintaining the work, which was detailed in a city staff report, said Bullwinkel. “This wasn’t done lightly, she said. “This was going to eat up a lot of our art budget.”
According to Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s economic development manager, a number of artworks in the city’s collection require maintenance and repair. In 2018, the city hired Los Angeles-based RLA Conservation to evaluate what needed to be done to maintain Berkeley’s public art, including Berkeley Big People. “We wanted an updated report on all our artwork,” said Klein.
The consulting firm found that both Berkeley Big People sculptures had “suffered significant cracks and chipped paint, and the initial repairs would cost between $68,000 and $96,000,” Bullwinkel said. Additional maintenance thereafter would cost between $13,000 and $15,000 every six months.
“They’re in really bad shape,” Bullwinkel said. “They’re going to need to be repaired and need maintenance, more than this one time. It’s going to cost a lot.”
Scott Donahue acknowledged that his artworks needed maintenance. But, he said, the damage is mainly limited to rust and paint flaking, which he said he could repair for $15,000. Public art, just like the pedestrian bridge itself, needs maintenance, he said. For Donahue, the maintenance issue is an excuse: “They want to get rid of it, is my opinion, and this is an easy way to do it.”
The report found that “the artwork is in poor condition due to the use of unsuitable materials, which has led to systemic material failure. The painted fiberglass surface is actively failing most likely from moisture seeping out of unsealed concrete.”
Donahue questions the validity of the report’s findings, however. According to Donahue the art conservator who looked at the sculptures “misidentified the material as fiberglass. It’s mortar.”
In addition, the problems “they’re talking about are superficial,” Donahue said. “Some pieces are flaking off.”
Besides maintenance costs, another issue that came up at the art commission meeting is the suitability of the sculptures for their location. “The artist has done amazing sculptural works,” former civic arts commissioner David Snipen said at the meeting. “But this particular artwork is not a fit for the bridge.”
Two years ago, in 2017, the commission explored a relocation “to a more aesthetically and contextually appropriate site,” Klein said. “When they got the actual costs, they were so high, (the commission) started talking about deaccession.”
Meeting the legal criteria for relocation presents even more challenges than the cost, according to Matthew Passmore, the commission’s vice-chair. “Ultimately, finding a site that is city-owned, not on conservation land, and meets other necessary conditions for the piece has proven extremely difficult,” he said.
Santiago Casal, the Berkeley artist who created the solar calendar at Cesar Chavez Park, said discussing whether Berkeley Big People is appropriate for its location shouldn’t even be up for debate.
“That battle was fought and won a long time ago,” Casal said. “Civic Arts (Commission) and the state of California completely vetted the sculptures through a rigorous process.”
Gateway to Berkeley
The original concept for the public art pieces was to serve as a gateway to the city.
Before it was approved, Berkeley Big People underwent five years of public scrutiny by the arts commission and a 10-member selection committee and ended up running $83,000 over budget. It was initially part of the pedestrian bridge budget, and the city council funded the overruns.
The eastern piece had to be moved five feet to the north from its initial location after Caltrans said it didn’t want it on its property. There have been concerns that the piece would topple during a major earthquake.
The sculpture on the east side of the bridge, closer to Aquatic Park, depicts what many say Berkeley is all about: free speech, protest and Berkeley’s cultural contributions. The 28-foot-by-12-foot-by-12-foot piece shows linchpin moments in the city’s history, including the People’s Park protests, Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement and the tree-sitters outside Memorial Stadium. The west side sculpture includes someone flying a kite, a boater, a jogger, a dog catching a Frisbee and a bird watcher looking through binoculars.
In addition to Berkeley, Donahue has done major installations in California and in Colorado, New York, New Jersey and Italy. He’s also taught art at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and California College of the Arts.
Installed at the cost of $196,000, the commission was the most expensive piece of public art in Berkeley’s history.
Supporters and detractors
John Roberts, a Berkeley-based land planner and landscape architect who has done work for Yosemite National Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the west branch of the Berkeley Public Library thinks Berkeley Big People should stay where it is.
“The subject matter is very appealing for Berkeley. I think it’s a fine piece and very appropriate for its location.” — John Roberts
“There are some people who don’t like it very much and some people who love it,” said Roberts, who counts himself in the latter camp. He said he has known Donahue for 20 years. “You recognize there’s something special going on. Once you get up to it, it’s very intimate. It works on a small and large scale. And the subject matter is very appealing for Berkeley. I think it’s a fine piece and very appropriate for its location.”
Shannon Jackson, on the other hand, can’t wait to see it go. In an Aug. 5 letter to the arts commission, the associate vice chancellor for the Arts and Design Department at UC Berkeley “strongly” supports removal. “My understanding is that the maintenance and repair of Berkeley Big People is significant, likely out of proportion to its value as an artistic piece,” Jackson said.
She feels the piece would be more appropriately located in a place frequented by children, who could appreciate its “hyper-literalness.” “The selection and creation of representative figures is strikingly unimaginative, almost laughably reproducing stereotype,” she wrote.
“The selection and creation of representative figures is strikingly unimaginative, almost laughably reproducing stereotype.” — Shannon Jackson
Jackson also considers the work to be a public hazard. “Highway drivers do not relish in this city symbol,” she wrote, “but worry that unstable figures might fall upon them as they try to drive by.”
Commission vice-chair Matthew Passmore hedged his assessment, saying he liked the idea of the two “sides” of Berkeley being bisected by the freeway but that there are too many styles and motifs happening all at once. “Scott is a very talented artist, but this piece, in my view, is not one of his most successful.”
Bullwinkel wants to give Donahue the chance to do another piece of art for the city, though rules may prohibit the commission from showing favoritism to one artist.
“We’re looking to see if we can do that without putting out an open call,” Bullwinkel said. “I can’t legally say.”
Donahue said he’s been offered the chance to take back his work, which entailed at least two years of designing and one year of fabricating.
“There’s no way I can buy it, and I have nowhere to put it,” Donahue said. “This artwork was designed for that bridge, for the people of Berkeley.”
There is a 90-day waiting period from the July 24 vote before any removal process can begin, during which the public can comment. Email the arts commission at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Berkeleyside editor Jeanne Carstensen contributed to this article.
The article was updated after publication to clarify remarks made by Jordan Klein. He said some of Berkeley’s artwork needed repair, not all of it. Correction, Aug. 19: The city’s Jordan Klein alerted us to a mistake by the city — maintenance of the artworks should occur every six months, not every two years.