by Roger Yim
The Tribune, Oakland, CA
Placing art in public spaces, or even privately owned spaces frequented by the public such as shopping malls, can become quite a nightmare for the arts commissions or developer.
Take Richard Serra's "Titled Arc", installed in a downtown Manhattan plaza in 1981. Critics have called the 12-foot-high, 112-foot-long steel wall a stunning work of art, rich in metaphor. But try telling that to disgruntled office workers who now have to walk around the arc to cross the plaza or eat in the looming structure's shadow. Their protests forced the city to consider moving the sculpture to another location.
Serra, who created the work specifically for the site, sued to block its removal. He lost but plans to file an appeal. Meanwhile, the arc remains a constant reminder of what happens when an artists' vision clashes with public taste and practicality.
In a case with an even less happy ending, a sculpture by noted Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi created for a Bank of Tokyo lobby in New York was chopped to bits because the bank employees and clients didn't like it.
Closer to home, many people voiced their dislike for George Segal's "The Holocaust'" a tangle of naked white figures in San Francisco's Lincoln Park in 1984. The chilling memorial to Holocaust victims remains, tucked out of sight in a recessed area near the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Had it been more visible, public outcry may have called for a move.
Only recently have arts commissions and developers begun to think of public art as a collaboration between artist and architect or urban planner. For example, new legislation passed in San Francisco that requires downtown developers to spend one percent on construction costs on art clearly states that the developers must work with the artists to create a cohesive plan to integrate the art with the environment - not just plop it down in any available corner. And for the artist, the stipulation bridles a runaway ego that might create a Great Pyramid of Giza where a bird house might be more appropriate.
An excellent example of a sensitive placement of public art within an environment is Oakland City Square's recently installed sculpture by Roslyn Mazzilli titled "There" (a name inspired by Gertrude Stein's famous declaration).
Commissioned by Bramalea Pacific, City Center's developer, Mazzilli's sculpture is the new focal point of the plaza designed by Oakland's IDG Architects. Despite it's height - some 20 feet - "There" is not a forbidding presence. The work's airy, swirling design and brilliant colors bring a sense of movement to a formerly static area. And unlike some of the smaller but more oppressive sculptures in other parts of the plaza, Mazzilli's sculpture seems consistent with the optimism feeding downtown redevelopment.