A cloud hangs over cartoonist Paul Conrad's anti-nuclear war sculpture in Santa Monica.
Faced with having to raise as much as $423,000 to repair the two-decade-old "Chain Reaction," city staffers have instead advised spending $20,000 to remove it.
After hearing from activists eager to preserve the Civic Auditorium sculpture, the city's Arts Commission has recommended that the City Council vote to remove, or "deaccession," the work — a mushroom cloud fashioned of dark chains. However, the panel also urged that restoration proponents — and Conrad's family — be given a six-month window to raise money to restore the 5 1/2-ton creation.
Funds for maintaining Santa Monica's public art collection have been scarce for years, said Jessica Cusick, the city's cultural affairs manager. Even if the city repaired "Chain Reaction," she said, "we might find ourselves in a situation in 10 years or so that it might still be in danger of collapsing."
Removal, she determined, was "the most responsible recommendation." The work would first be thoroughly documented, she added. The ominous 26-foot-high sculpture inspired strong opinions when it was installed in 1991, and discussion of its removal is provoking strong sentiments today.
"My personal view is I would like it to stay there," said Dave Conrad, 51, son of the provocative Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times. Paul Conrad died in 2010.
According to a city staff report, the political cartoonist contacted the city in the spring of 1988 to gauge interest in providing a permanent site for a planned artwork. A model was displayed at City Hall for several months in 1989. Of citizens surveyed, 730 recommended against accepting the sculpture, and 392 favored acquiring it.
The Arts Commission stood solidly behind the idea, however, and the City Council, after intense public debate, approved the installation.
The work was funded by a private donation of $250,000. Originally, Conrad planned to build the work of easy-to-maintain bronze. In the end, it was constructed of copper tubing over a fiberglass core and stainless steel frame. The staff report said an agreement with the artist provided that the work could be relocated, removed or destroyed at the city's discretion.
Last summer, a city official spotted children climbing on the sculpture and ordered a preliminary safety evaluation. City workers erected a temporary chain-link fence around the work, and inspectors found that fasteners that attach the copper tubing to the fiberglass core were missing or not fully embedded. Some exhibited severe corrosion or rust from salt air and rain.
The city responded by paying $20,715 for experts to assess the work's structural integrity. They and the city projected that further testing and repairs would run from $227,000 to $423,000, including landscaping to limit public access.
Jerry Rubin, a Santa Monica activist, said the city planned soon to spend $47 million to upgrade its adjacent auditorium. "What kind of statement does this make to the public about public art?" he said.
The City Council is expected to consider the issue in March.