Sculptor to Reevaluate Design of Artwork Alongside Bay

San Diego County Arts Editor

Sculptor Ellsworth Kelly has agreed to reconsider the controversial design of a proposed artwork for the twin peninsulas of Embarcadero Park near Seaport Village.

The work, which has been submitted to commissioners of the San Diego Unified Port District by the renowned Minimalist artist, consists of a 68-foot stainless steel monolith on one peninsula and a 32-foot hollow, prow-like arc of concrete on the other.

“Most criticism focuses on the concrete piece,” said Gerald Hirshberg, who heads the Port District’s five-member arts advisory board, which selected the Kelly design from hundreds of possibilities. “The issues surround that semi-private (interior) space that the configuration provides in a public zone. There’s concern about it providing sleeping quarters for transients; making it difficult for the grass to grow there; concern that litter might collect in it, and it’s eminently graffitti-able. It’s also a more difficult aesthetic statement than most people feel comfortable about.”

On April 23, port commissioners voted to delay their decision on the project for 90 days. The vote followed two hours of public debate, in which citizens criticized the sculpture for its non-realistic style and for fear that it would disrupt the harbor view and overwhelm the grassy park site.


Hirshberg said that he called Kelly, 62, one of the most acclaimed living artists in the world, at his New York home last week. “We talked frankly about what’s happening,” Hirshberg said. “And to our delight, he’s quite open to thinking about the issues involved. He’s now going to think about the site and the art and see if he can’t do anything specifically with the concrete piece--either an alternative or a redesign that is equally inspired.

“I don’t have any idea what he’s coming up with, but we’re dealing with a genius, and I could sense the wheels turning in his head as we spoke.”

“Personally, I feel quite pleased by what Mr. Kelly proposed,” Port District Chairman Bill Rick said of Kelly’s original design. “But we have tried to convey to Mr. Kelly that a majority of the commission has some reservations, and we’ve tried to enumerate those as best we could.” Rick agreed that asking an artist of Kelly’s stature for an alternative design was unusual. He said he was “quite gratified” by Kelly’s cooperative response.

Hirshberg said he expects Kelly to offer either sketches or a new maquette within two weeks, before the 90-day period set by the port commissioners ends on July 23. (Kelly could not be reached for comment.)


Hirshberg also assured that the $450,000 cost of the artwork would hold “absolutely.” Hirshberg was unsure if a redesign of the concrete element would force Kelly to redesign the stainless steel element.

“That’s one of the things Kelly will be considering,” said Hirshberg. “He had said before that the piece was a dialogue (between the two elements).”

Hirshberg noted that plans are under way to make a public slide presentation of the other designs that were considered before the arts board chose Kelly’s.

“What I hope all this indicates is that the arts board, the artist and commissioners are remaining responsive,” Hirshberg said. “The community has entered the dialogue and Kelly has responded. In all honesty, the arts board still feels that his proposal is marvelous, but we feel there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having alternatives. We had asked Kelly for site-specific sculpture, and he’s going to consider the concerns about the site. He may come up with something as good or better.”