A record — and raucous — crowd of more than 100 people packed the Newport Beach City Arts Commission meeting Thursday evening to protest the proposed Presidential Ronald Reagan statue that backers want placed in the new Civic Center.
After two hours of debate, the commission recommended that the City Council follow Newport Beach's already-established guidelines for commissioning public art, which include soliciting proposals from interested artists — something the council hadn't done.
Several commissioners stated that the council appeared to not follow due process when approving the statue last month. With no public discussion, the council gave the go-ahead for the commissioning of a $50,000 bronze Reagan statue that would be privately funded and placed in public park.
Councilman Keith Curry — who proposed the statue — wanted the artwork to be put in the new Civic Center.
Since then, Reagan supporters have raised more than $50,000 on the promise that the statue would be done by Utah-based sculptor Stan Watts. The Arts Commission wasn't consulted about the selection of Watts.
City policy states that the Arts Commission should "participate in the selection of artists for Art in Public Places projects" and "plan and oversee the artistic design process."
After hearing from residents at the meeting, Commissioner Gilbert Lasky said he "was beginning to come to the conclusion that this [commissioning of the Reagan statue] wasn't done properly. I know the procedure has not been followed in this case."
He added that the idea should start "afresh" with the City Council.
Commissioner Carole Boller, who is also a well-respected painter, said Newport Beach deserves the work of an artist with much higher standards than Watts, calling his work "pedestrian," "mundane and unexciting." She also said Watts' rendering of the Reagan artwork lacked something as basic of anatomical correctness.
Other art experts who spoke also questioned the quality of Watts' work — and even his professionalism.
It was a rough night for Curry, who attended the meeting and gave an opening statement that was often interrupted by a passionate, hostile and sometimes rude crowd. At one point, as he ticked off what he believed were Reagan's greatest accomplishments, the attendees shouted him down, forcing him to skip to the end of his remarks.
Eighteen people spoke in some manner against the Reagan statue. The most general themes were that city residents had not been given a voice in the manner and that the Civic Center was no place for a piece of art that many considered partisan.
"This is the wrong thing to do," said Kirwan Rockefeller, a Newport Beach resident and former arts commissioner. "It circumvents the process for transparency."
Robert Shelton, a former Newport Beach city manager and mayor, asked the arts commissioners, "Why has your commission been bypassed when city policy clearly states your numerous responsibilities relating to art in public places, such as recommending a suitable artist and design of an appropriate work of art, not just where to put a statue already chosen by others?"
He also wondered, "Why has this matter been fast-tracked with a minimum of public awareness and opportunity for comment?"
Msgr. Wilbert Davis, a Roman Catholic priest at Our Lady Queen of Angels parish in Newport Beach, spoke as an individual against the Reagan artwork.
"This would be a very poor decision," he said, noting the passion in the room. " … [Reagan] can be a divisive rather than unifying figure … it's not an appropriate thing for the city to do."
The City Council will most likely take up the matter at its Feb. 22 meeting. Presumably back on the table will be whether a Reagan statue on city land is appropriate and whether the council should follow city policy and have the Arts Commission solicit artists for the statue and recommend a spot for the artwork.
The council could also consider a statue sculptured by Watts as a gift to the city, and would then get a recommendation from the Arts Commission on whether to accept it and where to put it.
Many attending the Arts Commission meeting Thursday described themselves as proud Democrats, while others prefaced their remarks by revealing they voted for Reagan but still didn't like the idea of the statue.
It's impossible to gauge how deep the sentiment in Newport Beach was against erecting a Reagan statue at the new Civic Center or even having a statue of our 40th president anywhere on city land.
But I do suspect that Reagan backers, to use a President George W. Bush phrase, have "misunderestimated" the deep misgivings about the statue among residents, Democrat or Republican.
During the meeting, I overheard Kerry Reynolds — a key fundraiser for the Reagan statue and the only person to speak in favor of the artwork — say to a colleague about the crowd at the Arts Commission meeting: "They may be the only 100 people in Newport Beach who don't want it."