The Big People statues that anchor both ends of the pedestrian bridge crossing I-80 are on the way out.
Contractors hired by Berkeley started to prepare the controversial figures for removal on Friday morning, part of a three-day process to take them down and return them to their creator, the artist and Emeryville City Council member Scott Donahue. They should be gone by Tuesday. The cost to remove the art is $47,594, according to Jennifer Lovvorn, the chief cultural affairs officer for Berkeley’s Civic Arts Program.
“They are coming down,” said Lisa Bullwinkel, the chair of the Civic Arts Commission, which voted in July 2019 to remove the statues because the cost to maintain them had skyrocketed. “The artist is taking the top halves of both of them and we are getting rid of the pedestals. This is the best-case scenario. [The artist] can have them and do with them as he likes.”
Berkeley does not plan to replace the statues with other art because the salt air coming off the bay has proven to be so corrosive, said Bullwinkle.
Donahue said he will be bringing a flatbed truck on Monday to pick up the statue on the east side of the bridge and will return on Tuesday to get the statue on the west side. He is moving them to a site in Alameda, where he plans to repaint them and look for a new home. Donahue hasn’t found a new site yet but he is optimistic he will since his public art is well-regarded. He has designed, fabricated and installed 26 permanent public art pieces and 40 temporary art pieces in Italy, New York, New Jersey and Colorado, according to his website.
“Berkeley homeowners can buy these,” Donahue said, partly in jest. “They can be craned right into a backyard.”
Statues were installed in 2008 after lengthy public discussion
The Berkeley Big People statues were erected in October 2008 at a cost of close to $200,000 after an extensive public process.
The 28-foot-by-12-foot-by 12-foot sculpture on the bridge’s east side depicts what many say Berkeley is all about, free speech, protest and Berkeley cultural contributions. It includes depictions of Mario Savio as he helped launch the Free Speech Movement, the People’s Park protests, a musician from the Berkeley Symphony, a man using a wheel chair and the tree-sitters outside UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium.
The piece on the bridge’s eastern span, closer to the waterfront, shows a boater, a jogger, someone flying a kite, a bird watcher gazing through binoculars and a dog catching a Frisbee.
From the start, some people have liked the statues while others have not. San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker said in 2008 that the works scored “a new black eye on the already battered face of public art in the Bay Area.”
But the statues have become an integral part of Berkeley’s landscape. They are visible from I-80 where hundreds of thousands of cars pass each day. People walking or biking across the pedestrian bridge see them as well.
The statues have not stood up well to the weather, however. Berkeley hired a Los Angeles consulting firm in 2018 to examine the condition of all the city’s public art. It determined that both Berkeley Big People sculptures had “suffered significant cracks and chipped paint.” The consultant determined initial repairs would cost between $68,000 and $96,000 and additional maintenance thereafter would cost between $13,000 and $15,000 every six months, said Bullwinkel.
The commission voted to deaccession them because the cost was prohibitive, said Bullwinkel. The vote in no way reflected the quality or popularity of the art, she said.
“It was controversial putting them up; it was controversial taking them down,” said Bullwinkel. “The decision to take them down was about the condition and cost. If they were in good shape there was no way we would have taken them down.”
Donahue contended then, and still believes, that the projected repair and maintenance costs are “fiction.” He believes that all the statues need is some new paint; he said they were not corroded. The durability of marine paint has improved in the past 12 years and Donahue will repaint the statues with a Sherwin Williams paint, he said.
Donahue has always been troubled with the way Berkeley decided to deaccession the statues. He said the decision was made by a non-elected body, the Civic Arts Commission, in two meetings held in the middle of the day on weekdays. Bullwinkel said Donahue was given ample notice of the commission’s meetings.
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.
But Donahue is pleased that the statues will at least be saved. When Berkeley first proposed deaccessioning them, they were going to be destroyed, he said. Bullwinkel said that might have been the case but it never came to that since Donahue agreed to take them.