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Keeping it clean: Public art in Oakland

on February 18, 2009

Public artworks in Oakland live the good life. While city-commissioned sculptures and murals in San Jose and San Francisco have been targets of graffiti and vandalism, curators working in Oakland’s public arts program say that here, people are mostly content to admire public art without adding their own editorial flair.

But even though passersby aren’t a problem, there is another threat lurking in the streets: “Trucks,” says Kristen Zaremba. She helps coordinate the public arts program at the city’s cultural arts department. “Vehicles in general, but somehow garbage trucks — and the city’s own service trucks — have been especially problematic.”

Zaremba recalls an incident in 2007 when a city service truck backed into a metal gate made of found objects outside Bella Vista Park. Its bumper caught on the gate, and a hinge came loose. The artist, Eric Powell, was called in to fix the gate, at the city’s expense.

“I guess somebody was just careless that day,” Powell says, laughing. He’s an Oakland-based metal artist who works on a large scale with steel and bronze. He began creating art for cities like Oakland ten years ago, and he says the process can be more complicated than designing for private spaces.

“I’ve learned to build in a really heavy-duty way over the years, and every problem informs the next project,” he says. “In the future, if a truck backs into one of my gates, hopefully I’ll have overbuilt to where the gate doesn’t even feel it.”

Working with art in the public realm often means the art will live outdoors, and the artist and the city have to factor in all sorts of environmental hazards that don’t exist inside a museum. Big trucks with little rear-view mirrors are just the beginning. Rain and smog beat up on the vibrant colors of painted murals over the years, and velvet cordons can’t keep little hands off of the half-century old sculptures at Fairyland.

And that’s the way it should be, says Kristen Zaremba. “Public art will be touched, and there’s value in people interacting with it,” she says. “We hope that the community will feel a sense of ownership over art in their neighborhoods.”

The city requires artists it commissions to sign a contract that includes a one-year warranty on the finished piece. After that, the Cultural Arts and Marketing Department, which runs the public arts program, is charged with the upkeep of city art. Rather than get footed with a big bill when a mural crumbles or a sculpture gets nicked, Zaremba says Oakland’s public art program opts for preventive care, spending time and money upfront to help the artist choose the best materials for the job and install the finished product in a way that’s built to last.

One way is to call in experts like Molly Lambert, a “conservator of immovable cultural property” who owns the firm Architectural Conservation, Inc. in Berkeley. Lambert does conservation reviews for the city, meaning she’ll look at the proposed site and talk to the artist about materials and construction during the design stage. Recently the city called Lambert to look at a redesign of tunnels at Children’s Fairyland.

“The city asked me to advise on types of paint for the tunnels walls, but when I got there, I looked around and noticed another problem,” Lambert says. The tunnels didn’t have adequate drainage, so rain water would pool up at the bottom. “Any paint would soak up that water and eventually peel off,” she says. “Since we’re working in uncontrolled environments, we have to look at the site in a holistic fashion.”

Funding for public art comes from a 1989 ordinance that set aside 1.5 percent of the cost of any new capital improvement projects by the city for the commission of public art work at the same location. That’s how the new public library under construction at 81st Avenue in East Oakland got its artful etched-glass windows, and how the new Fire Station 18 at 50th and Bancroft will feature a tiled mosaic façade by Oakland artist Laurel True when it’s finished.

At the low end, public art works have been commissioned for $2,000, like Gail Smithwalter’s tile mural commemorating the Oakland Hills Firestorm outside the Rockridge BART station. Then there are towering landmarks like Bruce Beasley’s bronze and steel Vitality sculpture in Ogawa Plaza, which the city bought for $250,000.

The ordinance doesn’t set aside a specific amount for maintenance and cleanup of public art over the years, however. From that 1.5 percent of a project’s capital improvement budget, the cultural arts program has to fund the cost of purchase from the artist, community outreach, insurance, and installation, among other costs. According to Steven Huss, the coordinator of the Cultural Arts Program, there isn’t much left over for upkeep once the work is complete. “We’re in a triage kind of situation, where we can only repond to the greatest need,” he says.

The public arts program escaped a complete suspension of funding that was proposed during the October budget cuts. Rather than suspend the program, the city now requires the public arts program to fund itself from savings in the Public Art Fund, an account created under the 1989 Percent for Art Ordinance. That means less money for maintenance.

“I’m really concerned about the deterioration of the older murals, and I don’t have funds to address them,” Huss says. He’s particularly concerned about the animal murals under the 580 freeway by Oakland muralist Dan Fontes, which are two decades old. “The giraffes are doing well, but there’s a zebra near Kaiser that needs cleaning,” Huss says. “That zebra has been on my mind.”

Still, public art in Oakland is in better shape than nearby cities, says Huss, who worked for similar programs in Seattle and Alameda County before coming to Oakland. While public art in San Francisco near BART stations and bus stops often suffers from graffiti and skateboard wheels, Huss says Oakland’s murals are relatively graffiti-free. “It seems that taggers are looking for a blank canvas. If they see that a space has already been used by another artist, they tend to respect that,” he says.

Eric Powell, the artist who created the Bella Vista Gate, agrees. In Oakland, his work hasn’t been a major target of graffiti or other vandalism. “When I went back to the park to fix the gate hinge, I noticed some really minor tagging on the inside of the gate, almost where you couldn’t really see it,” he says. “It didn’t feel like a violation, the way it was done. It was very carefully done, very small. I wasn’t offended at all–strangely enough, it felt almost like an addition.”

Lead image: Mural at the West Oakland Senior Center.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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