Artworks Praised, Vilified at Hearing : Port Board Delays Vote on Disputed Sculptures

Times Staff Writer

The state of public art in San Diego--at least that part under the considerable purview of the Unified Port District--was temporarily placed in limbo Tuesday when the Board of Port Commissioners decided it needed more time to examine two proposed controversial waterfront sculptures.

The decision, however, was preceded by a lengthy public hearing in which opponents and supporters of the art pieces took turns alternately condemning the projects as "desecrating" the shoreline and praising them for bringing examples of artistic freedom before the public.

Afterward, artist Vito Acconci, a Brooklyn-based sculptor of national renown, said he was willing to meet with the commissioners, though he admitted he was somewhat confused about what was expected of him.

"I'm not sure what the resolution was exactly," he said. Acconci's proposed "Sea of Green"--a contemporary sculpture consisting of 40 dug-out boat-shaped seats, shadows of airplanes surrounded by palm trees, and large airplanes rising from the earth--has been selected by the port's Art Advisory Committee for a section of Spanish Landing.

Now Has Misgivings

The $325,000 work has been criticized by some as resembling a crash scene and a graveyard, something Acconci said he never intended, though he told the board he, too, now has misgivings about the appropriateness of the rising airplanes because they don't fit into the artistic theme he wanted to create at the park.

Acconci told the commissioners he was willing to remove the airplanes, a position he reaffirmed after the hearing, though he said he didn't know what work he would use for a replacement.

The second artwork, an 18-foot blue palm tree set in a 19-foot oval pool and crowned by a fountain, proposed by San Diego artist Roberto Salas for Harbor Island, also was the object of a see-saw of scorn and adulation, though not on the emotional level that Acconci's seemed to evoke. Like Acconci, Salas also said he was willing to discuss his $75,000 piece further and is open to making changes.

But both artists said later that, despite the long proceeding and much public testimony, they found the criticism too vague and thus difficult to respond to.

Commissioners Listened

For its part, the Board of Port Commissioners--which was formally presented with the proposals for the first time, though the arts committee had made its selection in April--mainly listened to the artists and the public and made few comments.

"I don't want them (arts committee) to quit now . . . we shouldn't quit now," said Commissioner Bill Rick. "We should accept the battle that goes along with spending money on public art."

Commissioner Louis Wolfsheimer said that, if anything, the Acconci sculpture "may be too benign."

But it was clear, according to what Rick said after the hearing, that if a vote on the works proposed by Acconci and Salas had been taken, the sculptures would have been rejected. It was Rick who made the motion setting up a two-member ad hoc commissioners' committee to meet with two members of the arts advisory committee and the artists to discuss and modify the projects.

Positive Development

Gerald Hirshberg, chairman of the arts committee, said he found the creation of the ad hoc committee a positive development but explained that he will not attempt to represent the views or usurp the independence of the artists.

Some of the critics at the hearing, such as Leland Montgomery, called for the abolition of the port's public arts program, contending that, in the Acconci and Salas pieces, the Port District was "dealing with extreme forms of contemporary art."

June Moeser, representing a group called City Beautiful and who said her expertise included helping in the creation of the Don Diego statue at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, said her organization was strongly opposed to "this kind of expenditure for this kind of art."

The Acconci piece, she said, would "desecrate the beauty of that park."

Conservative Ways Praised

Other critics praised San Diego for its conservative tradition and questioned whether the city was making a mistake by wanting to become "cosmopolitan." They urged the commissioners to remain "traditional and conservative."

For every critic, though, there was a supporter. "I feel we're at a crossroads," said David Newsome, explaining that contemporary art in San Diego was limited to museums and UC San Diego. "Take a giant step and take it (contemporary art) out into the city."

Some, such as Gerry McAllister of the Mandeville Gallery at UC San Diego, said that the commissioners had specifically set up the Arts Advisory Committee to go through the rigorous process of culling various proposals, and that the committee--after following a well-publicized series of steps--had made its recommendations. It was now up to the Board of Port Commissioners, she said, to respect that procedure and authorize the sculptures.

Others, such as Edith Kodmur, simply called for approval of the sculptures because they represent "artistic freedom." Some said rejection would be a vote for "non-thought."

"You're not there to represent yourself . . . but the entire community," said Veronica Enrique, an official with Centro Cultural de la Raza, a museum emphasizing Latino artists.

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