Port Board Kills Art Projects; Panel Chief Quits

San Diego County Arts Writer

The San Diego Unified Port District on Tuesday killed proposed sculpture projects on Harbor Island and at Spanish Landing, prompting the resignation of Arts Advisory Committee Chairman Gerald Hirshberg and possibly all six members of the blue-ribbon panel.

Hirshberg, speaking to the press after the passionate one-hour meeting at Port District offices, said the Board of Port Commissioners has “turned down an Ellsworth Kelly (proposal), a Vito Acconci and a Roberto Salas. I think we have no choice.”

Sculptor Russell Forester, another committee member, resigned before Tuesday’s meeting, blaming frustration in dealing with the commissioners. Forester said that, in his resignation letter, he told Port District Chairman Raymond Burk that the commissioners themselves are the major obstacle to public art.


The commission made no decision about the future of the public art program, but Burk has said in the past that there should be a moratorium on it.

“For the last couple of years,” Forester said, “we haven’t been able to produce art simply because they put their foot on the brake.”

Committee member Isabelle Wasserman, who is also resigning, said of the outcome of Tuesday’s hearing: “I think we’ve taken a giant step back 30 years.”

The vote followed an hourlong public debate, held in a packed board room with models of both artworks displayed on a table in front of the commission members.

One project, Brooklyn artist Vito Acconci’s playful landscape of airplane designs, would have been constructed in Spanish Landing Park near Lindbergh Field at an estimated cost of $325,000. The second project, an 18-foot blue concrete palm tree designed by La Jolla sculptor Roberto Salas, would have been put on Harbor Island, not far from Spanish Landing.

Had it been approved, the Salas piece would have cost about $75,000.

The public art project, first proposed by Mayor Maureen O’Connor when she was a port commissioner, has had a stormy history. O’Connor’s original idea was to dress up Port-owned tidelands with public artworks. Two pieces were installed by local artists almost immediately, one near Seaport Village, the other in Chula Vista.


First Met Opposition

The arts advisory committee, the same panel of local art professionals who serve as advisers for the Center City Development Corp., first encountered opposition from the Port Commission and the public when it proposed a design by the internationally noted Minimalist sculptor Ellsworth Kelly.

Kelly’s design, featuring a stainless steel obelisk and a prow-like concrete structure, was rejected by the commission on the grounds that it would attract transients and encourage vandalism. The commission later approved a modified plan submitted by Kelly, but, before it could be constructed, Kelly backed out, saying he was uncomfortable with the compromise and didn’t want his art being installed in a negative environment.

Acconci, who won a national contest conducted by the Port District, seemed to relish the public dialogue. But he still ran into trouble. His first design was publicly criticized for resembling an aircraft disaster or graveyard and he was asked to do more work on it.

Dramatically Revised

Acconci made dramatic revisions in his design, and the seven port commissioners seemed agreed that the new design overcame the criticisms. But Tuesday, by a 5-2 margin, the piece was rejected.

“I had sort of expected it,” Acconci said, by telephone after the hearing. “But I hoped (it would turn out) differently. I thought it would be something of use to the space and the people there, but obviously these five people didn’t think so. I’m still disappointed it didn’t happen.

“I wish I understood more what they were against, and there could have been more talk and discussion,” he said. “But I think they put themselves in the position to be authoritarians and decided on something.”


Commissioners Daniel Larsen, Delton Reopelle, Milford Portwood, Robert Penner and Burk voted against the Acconci piece, with Commissioners Louis Wolfsheimer and William Rick in favor.

Conducted Poll

Portwood said he couldn’t support the two works after conducting a personal poll of several hundred people.

“I found out that an overwhelming . . . majority do not want these works,” Portwood said.

Reopelle called both pieces “great,” but could not envision “either one on tideland property.”

The vote against Salas’ palm tree was 4 to 3. There was little discussion of Salas’ work after the commission had voted on Acconci. Salas had won the opportunity to submit his proposal after winning a regional contest.

Hirshberg, making reference to Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s declaration of 1988 as San Diego’s Year of the Arts, called the voting “a blow, not only for public art, but for all the arts.”

“We’re talking about it, we’re traveling about it,” he added. “When it comes to doing it, we can’t take that kind of leap.”