Standing on the plush deck of the Reuben E. Lee paddle boat on Harbor Island, with a splendid view of San Diego Bay behind him, Port Commissioner Delton Reopelle on Wednesday officially breathed life back into a program that many had once thought dead: the Port of San Diego's public-art program.
With about $2.2 million in the bank, this is the newest phase of the port's tempestuous art program, which began in 1982, but which to date has seen only one work installed: Kenneth Capps' "Konoids" sculpture in Chula Vista. The art fund accrues at a rate of three-eighths of 1% of the port's gross annual revenues.
In view of past controversies, Reopelle made clear that the port will move cautiously this time and that the first step will be to create a master plan for putting art in the San Diego area tidelands. The plan will include no discussion of specific artworks yet.
For the moment, it will address only "fiscal site and program recommendations for a three- to five-year period," according to a statement distributed at the meeting.
However, Reopelle said the final word on art will remain the responsibility of the commissioners.
"The final decision will be made by the Board of Port Commissioners," he said. "And the recommendation will come from the ad hoc committee,"
which will be involved in the process every step of the way.
Calling the meeting "a very important event," Reopelle said the commissioners' goal now is to "focus on public participation." Previously, public input came primarily after the projects were proposed, despite the fact that all arts committee meetings were open to the public.
To ensure public involvement, the port has formed an ad hoc committee, including Reopelle of National City, Commissioner Dan Larsen of San Diego and Commissioner Raymond Burk of Coronado. The group is working with Carol and Tom Hobson, San Diego-based art consultants who hold the $52,500 contract to create the master plan by Jan. 31.
Speaking at the same meeting, Tom Hobson said it is too early to project when art might be in place. Instead, the Hobsons spoke of significant public involvement and have scheduled four public meetings (see sidebar).
The goal of the meetings is to reach a "public consensus" on the plan, Hobson said, although he left vague what that plan might entail. Carol Hobson said the public meetings will include slide presentations of artworks, as well as discussion of available sites. It will be a time for the public to present ideas and comments, she said, describing the meetings as "a call to action."
"The plan must be viable, it must be doable and it must fall within the port mandate," Tom Hobson said. That mandate is to promote "commerce, navigation, fisheries and recreation." The art program falls within the realm of recreation, he said.
In the past five years, the port's art program has been plagued with controversy.
In 1984, the commissioners accepted a proposal for a major work by New York sculptor Ellsworth Kelly, but the artist withdrew after commissioners asked for significant design changes.
In 1988, proposals for sculptural projects by New York-based Vito Acconci and San Diego-based Roberto Salas were turned down after much public debate. The rejections were followed immediately by the resignation of the port's six-member volunteer art advisory committee, which included Hugh M. Davies, director of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art; Mary L. Beebe, director of the Stuart Collection of Sculpture at UC San Diego, and others from the arts community.
The committee said its credibility and authority were continually undermined by the commissioners.
Answering questions Wednesday, Reopelle and the Hobsons emphasized the preliminary nature of the effort.
"There's a general feeling that we would like to enhance the beauty of the tidelands by providing public art," Reopelle said.
But there's no hurry, he emphasized.
"Last time we did not succeed in putting art on the tidelands. I think this has the potential of working," Reopelle said.
"If we don't get anything tomorrow, that's all right. We've waited nine years.
"Let's take our time and do our homework."
Public Meetings on Port Art
The San Diego Unified Port District will hold community meetings to solicit input for its public art master plan. The meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.:
* South Bay: May 29, Radisson Hotel, conference room, 700 National City Blvd., National City.
* North Bay: June 12, Seapoint Hotel, Harborview Room, 4875 North Harbor Drive, San Diego.
* Coronado-Imperial Beach: June 16, Le Meridien Hotel, St. Tropez C Room, 2000 2nd St., Coronado.
* San Diego: July 10, Holiday Inn Embarcadero, Pacific Ballroom D, 1355 N. Harbor Drive.