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Arts and culture highlights by Engagement Editor Kinsee Morlan (Tuesdays)
This is the first story in a series focused on San Diego’s public art – where it’s located and why.
Some San Diego neighborhoods are saturated with art from the city’s public collection. Others have little or none.
For the first time, you can see a citywide map of San Diego’s civic art collection. Voice of San Diego requested documentation of every sculpture, painting, installation or other work of art the city owns, created a searchable database and mapped the results.
It provides a birds-eye view of where art is and isn’t, and makes the work more accessible. We’ll update the database as the city adds new pieces to its collection.
Previously, the city had only published a select few public art listings on its website.
One thing the map makes clear: Public art is hardly distributed equally throughout the city.
For instance, City Council District 3, which includes downtown and neighborhoods like Hillcrest, South Park and Normal Heights, has by far the most art. It is home to hundreds of pieces spread throughout 40 locations. Meanwhile, District 9, which includes neighborhoods like Kensington, College Area, City Heights and Mountain View, has just a dozen works in four locations. District 1 (La Jolla, Carmel Valley) has about 120 pieces of art, while District 2 (Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach) has roughly 70.
Many historically underserved communities like Encanto, Barrio Logan, Mt. Hope and others in southeastern San Diego have little or no art at all. Barrio Logan has just one piece, as does Encancto. Mt. Hope, Clairemont and Tierrasanta do not have any public art.
District 3’s disproportionate share of art shouldn’t be all that surprising. It is home to both the Central Library and Balboa Park, which are packed with art and intended to be resources for all city residents, not just their immediate neighbors.
Gail Goldman, a public art consultant who ran the San Diego’s public art program from 1989 to 2000, said San Diego isn’t the only city where public art is spread disproportionately. Nor is it the only city looking to address the issue.
“Traditionally … communities where there’s more libraries and rec centers have more art and the outlying communities that are underserved are left without,” she said. “So cities are looking for opportunities to try to address public art on a broader geographic level to really maximize its impact to a more diverse range of people.”
The city has about 500 works of art on view throughout San Diego. A small percentage of the city’s collection is in storage for various reasons.
Most of the work comes through donations. The first piece in the city’s collection, for example, was the Irving Gill-designed Horton Plaza fountain, gifted to the city in 1909 and reinvigorated by the redeveloped plaza’s unveiled this month. A Pacific Beach man also recently gave the city dozens of works of art from his private collection.
In the 1980s, the city created the Commission for Arts and Culture to help manage the city’s growing collection. The commission also advises the mayor and City Council on art issues and boosts arts and culture in the region.
The commission is responsible for finding homes for the city’s donated art – mostly prints and paintings – at places like libraries, recreation centers and other city-owned or managed buildings.
But the city also fills its collection on its own, through the public art program, which funds new pieces mostly through the percent-for-art policy. Adopted in 2004, the policy lets the city pull a small percentage of funds from both public and private development projects and spends it on new public art pieces.
Pieces from the public art program include “Corpus Callosum” by Einar and Jamex de la Torre, the colorful glass installation surrounding one of the elevators at the new Central Library downtown; artist Joyce Cutler Shaw’s tree-like installation at the Mission Valley Branch Library or the art you often see adorning the outside of fire and pump stations, water facilities, public parks and incorporated in some private projects. (Some of the art in public places throughout the city is actually a result of programs managed by the Port of San Diego and the San Diego International Airport. That’s not part of the city’s collection).
For the city’s public development projects – like new libraries and fire stations – art funded through the percent-for-art policy must be built onsite. Private builders, however, have the option either to install art on premises or pay a fee into the city’s public art fund, which the commission uses on other pieces.
That requirement also contributes to the city’s art clusters and deserts. Neighborhoods with new public and private projects get the public art that comes with them. Neighborhoods historically overlooked by developers don’t get new projects or art.
“This is a really good argument for why cities should fund art in other ways,” said Barbara Goldstein, a public art consultant based in San Jose, Calif. “They can’t just rely on their percent-for-art programs.”
Goldstein said many cities she’s worked with have been relying more on other funding sources to ensure that public art ends up in places that need it most.
“It varies from community to community,” Goldstein said. “But some use a percent of the city’s hotel tax or a small percent of general funds so you can balance out the benefits to well-off communities versus those that are less well-off.”
Larry Baza, one of the 15 volunteer arts commissioners, said he understands the limitations of the city’s percent-for-art policy.
But he said it’s also created many high-quality works around the city, and cleared the way for future funding programs by showing city officials how art can enhance city projects.
“I think that this is a good beginning,” Baza said. “It shows a commitment on the part of the city of San Diego to improve and infuse art in these various facilities.”
Baza and Dana Springs, the commission’s executive director, said the commission’s most recent proposed budget for the first time spends existing money on new public art projects. The commission has also amassed roughly $1 million from developer fees. That money has no geographic restrictions and the commission is in the process of deciding what to do with it.
At the commission’s most recent public art committee meeting, Christine Jones, the city’s senior public art program manager, pitched ideas for spending the development money. They discussed options like building a single, iconic piece or creating lots of smaller works throughout the city.
Springs said even though the city never digitally mapped its art collection, it has always taken location into consideration and will do so even more in the future.
“So we can, if it seems appropriate, fill in a gap somewhere,” she said.
Springs said she would use VOSD’s new map as the commission gets closer to funding new projects.
“That’s great,” she said. “Now can visualize it and you can help us fill in the gaps.”
Goldman, who used to run the city’s art program in the ‘90s, said many cities are looking for more diverse, less restrictive funding streams for public art.
“There’s definitely a trend of trying to create a more well-rounded, more holistic program,” she said. “It’s becoming important and it’s something communities themselves are asking for.”
Goldman said it’s a good time for the city to make a concerted effort to get public art to neighborhoods where there isn’t any.
“San Diego has had the public art program long enough now to know where it needs to go and how to get it there,” she said.