Art Vandals Have City Casting for Solutions

Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

Sally Weber was fresh in from the East, with graduate training in holographic art at MIT, when she won the $50,000 commission to do a public art installation in front of an office building near the junction of Oxnard Boulevard and the Ventura Freeway.

Her piece, "Flight of Fish," was an instant hit. Weber took what might have been a humdrum fountain pool near the entrance to North Coast Executive Building and mounted 50 stainless steel fish atop 50 steel poles that rose up out of the water at varying heights.

Each fish bore "scales" of light-reflecting Mylar and, owing to its mount upon the pole, moved freely in the wind. The result was a school of fish that "swam" synchronously, turning quickly without warning, in apparent whim. Since Mylar changes from red to yellow to green to blue with each changing angle of light, the field of fish became a protean, luminously charged color cloud that captivated office workers and passersby.

An artist friend at the time told Weber, "This is candy for the eyes."

Now it's booty for thieves.

Since installation in 1989, 30 of the original 50 fish have been yanked from their poles and stolen. Somehow, sometime in the night, vandals wade out into the pool to claim their trophies. "Flight of Fish" is now a skeletal remains of its vivid, original self.

Strangely, the tables have turned at this site. It used to be the building that was anorexic, with only 25% occupancy. Now it's nearly full, while the art installation stands harvested and ripe for final pickings.


Oxnard leads Ventura County in the amount of public art that developers agree to place on their properties. While art is not required by city codes, the Oxnard City Council stands by a resolution urging large-scale developers to commission artworks for the public good.

You'd have to be a very dim investor not to think you could afford $50,000 to fulfill a city's sense of aesthetic destiny when you're spending millions to win approvals from and build within the city. Still, nobody foresaw a scenario in which public art would get serially abused and lie in need of repair.

Art seems to fall outside of normal building maintenance: Plate-glass windows shatter in the wind and get replaced, parking lots cave to sink holes and get repaved. But art? Landlords have better ways to spend their money. Commerce has never depended upon flying fish.

The city is, in fact, doing its part to get the owners on the stick about Weber's fish. A letter went out last week to Torrance-based Bedford Properties asking that the installation be restored or an altogether new one commissioned.

But Bedford's ownership of the site, situated at 1000 Town Center Drive, is recent and twice-removed from the bankrupt original owner, Thousand Oaks-based TOLD Corp. Along the volatile ownership path, any corporate heartstrings tied to "Flight of Fish" were clearly cut.


Weber, as you might expect, is distraught, calling the vandalism of her work "a deep violation." Oxnard City Hall, meanwhile, is trying to do the right thing, saying remedy to the problem is indeed enforceable because Weber's "Flight of Fish" was negotiated with TOLD as a condition of the building's use permit.

That, of course, says nothing of where the stolen fish have beached. And it says nothing about who takes pleasure in defacing art designed to make all our lives a tad brighter, a bit richer.

Fired up, Weber recently called the Oxnard police to discuss $30,000 worth of missing fish and the likelihood that the rest would soon vanish. Could they please do something? In an attempt to make things real, she went on to report that she actually knew where one of the fish was: on an apartment balcony in Oxnard. A friend had pointed it out, and Weber had taken a photo to show for it.

But the police told Weber that property theft was something only the building's owners could report. Sally Weber may have conceived and built "Flight of Fish," but she gave up any claim on its life when she got paid by TOLD.

Last week the one known, disappeared fish sat on the Oxnard apartment balcony, proudly displayed for all who walked or drove by. I mounted the stairs to the apartment and was greeted by a young child. I left my name and number, but no one chose to call me back.

It's just as well. Other than mount an all-night stakeout or invite the local Lions Club to rally some civic rage, there's nothing I can do about rape of public art. Only Bedford Properties can. The city's letter to Bedford gives Bedford 30 days in which to indicate whether they'll restore "Flight of Fish" or start over with something new--something the cannibals among us can't get at.

At this point, there's no telling how much Bedford will care about something so free of utility and profit as art. Bedford has, apparently, cared about liability, as the poles that once supported fish were removed following the thefts. It's a terrible thought, a thieving thug impaling himself.

Calls to Bedford were met with a request that any questions be submitted in writing.

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