San Diego’s arts commissioners voted 7-4 not to recommend moving forward with artist Rob Ley’s proposed design for a public artwork  at the new Chollas Water Operations facility in Oak Park.
The artwork’s budget is $340,000. Ley proposed putting a water-inspired abstract sculpture on the exterior of the new building.
When the city builds a project, like a library or park, 2 percent of the project’s funds must be used to pay for public art . But when the city builds public utility projects, like sewage facilities, the city policy results in public art that isn’t very accessible.
Carlos Cristiani, one of the city’s 15 volunteer arts commissioners, expressed concern at Friday’s monthly commission meeting. He said water facilities are not very accessible, and “I don’t really see the logic in funding art that isn’t really public.”
In response to the concern, J Noland, the city’s civic art project manager, said the facility is accessible to the public during work hours, Monday through Friday. He said some people go to the facility for water related needs.
But commissioners Udoka Nwanna, Gina M. Jackson and others weren’t satisfied with that response. They voiced similar concerns about accessibility, asking if studies had been done about how many members of the public actually go to the sites. They had concerns about the facility only being open during hours when most people are at work.
Vernon Franck, chair of the commission’s public art committee, abstained from the vote, but also expressed concern about the city continuing to fund public art on public utility projects that most people never visit. He noted that, while the sculpture would be viewable to people walking by the facility, it would be hundreds of feet away and behind a chain-linked fence.
“This is the difficulty we have with CIP funding for public utility projects and access to them,” he said. “So while this project successfully meets the city’s criteria, it doesn’t measure up as far as what good public art can be.”
Roughly a dozen of the city-owned artworks are located at water plants or pump stations. Yet ever since Sept. 11, the public can’t get into most of those facilities, or not very easily.
The city has argued that restrictive funding makes officials unable to move the artwork to more publicly accessible sites — but that might not be true.
An opinion last year from the city attorney  said there are ways officials could get around the policy, but it could open itself up to a lawsuit if it isn’t careful.
At the meeting, Franck suggested that the arts commission look at how it might be able to stop putting public art on public utility projects.
“There are other municipalities that have a different reading and they take a different approach that is less restrictive,” he said. “I think this body should examine these restrictions and find a way to make public art more accessible.”
Christine Jones, who oversees the city’s public art program, defended Ley’s proposal, saying the artist got positive input from members of the Oak Park community.
Currently, there’s just one piece of city-funded public art  in Oak Park. Chollas Lake, a highly trafficked public park across the street from the Chollas Water Operations facility, would make sense for hosting a new, $340,000 public artwork. But Franck said the artist looked at other site options and was ultimately unable to come up with a creative solution.
“Personally, I’m disappointed that for this large expenditure we’re ending up with a sculpture that’s inaccessible to the public,” Franck said.
The proposed artwork, however, could get built despite the accessibility concerns. The arts commission plays an advisory role. Ultimately, the executive director of the Commission for Arts and Culture will decide if the artwork can move forward as is. Jones, the commission’s acting director, will be the one to make the call.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said the City Council would ultimately vote on whether the artwork would move forward. The executive director of the Commission for Arts and Culture makes the call.