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San Diego’s Public Art Isn’t Very Public

San Diego’s public art ends up in weird and not-so-public locations based on the way the city pays for new pieces.

San Diego has over 500 works of art in its civic art collection but it isn’t all that easy for typical city residents to get to each of those pieces.

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 – at least not very easily.

Security concerns caused officials to close most of San Diego’s water-related facilities to the general public. To see the art there now, folks have to contact the city’s communication department, pass certain security measures and set up an appointment.

“One time to see [Robert Millar’s] work at the Alvarado Water Treatment Plant, I hopped a fence and snuck a look at it,” said artist Robin Brailsford, who was commissioned by the city to add her own artwork, “Stream of Consciousness / Body of Water,” to the Miramar Water Treatment plant when it was upgraded and expanded a few years ago.

Not all of the work at public water facilities is closed off. An art installation by Marcos Ramires Erre and Teddy Cruz that covers a pump station in Point Loma can still be viewed by the public, for instance. But even those facilities are often located in strange, off-the-beaten-path places not frequented by many people.

San Diego’s public art ends up in these weird and not-so-public locations based on the way the city pays for new pieces.

The majority of San Diego’s public art collection is donated work. That donated artwork is placed in city-owned or city-controlled buildings.

The majority of other work in the civic collection is paid for by the city’s percent-for-art policy, in which a small percentage of the costs of new public and private development goes to new public artwork.

But the artwork funded through city projects must be built on premises – full stop. When officials decide where to build projects like new water treatment plants or libraries, they’re also deciding where to put new artwork.

The current system has resulted in an inequitable distribution of public art across San Diego, since the city doesn’t own property or build new facilities in every neighborhood at equal rates.

The problem is not unique to San Diego. Thousands of cities around the world rely on a percent-for art policy, and people are questioning whether it’s the best way to fund public art.

Brailsford, who’s done dozens of public projects in various cities, questions whether it makes sense as structured.

“These type of projects – water treatment plants – have incredibly large public art budgets. But other public projects, like Bird Park in North Park, or a skate park or something like that – those projects have a low overall budget and so the 2 percent that pays for art is very, very low,” she said. “I’m an artist, so I think all places are good for public art. But what I would do is change how public art is funded. Instead of it being based on a percentage of a project that then limits where the art can go, the money should be pooled and go toward funding art in the places that have the most public access.”

More Public Art That You’ll Need an Appointment to See

The first thing you see when you pull up to the Chollas Water Operations Facility in Oak Park is a big stop sign at an unmanned security booth. The fence surrounding the facility adds to the unwelcoming vibe.

Located at the intersection of College Grove Drive and Caminito Chollas, the facility is about to undergo a major upgrade that includes the demolition of all but one of the buildings on the property. The new construction will trigger the city’s percent-for-art policy, meaning artwork will be included there.

The city’s Commission for Arts and Culture, the agency that manages the city’s public art program, put out a call to artists earlier this year to create a new piece funded by 2 percent of the overall construction funds – roughly $340,000. A selection committee is still deciding which artist or artist team will create the work.

Just down the street from the Chollas Water Operations Facility is Chollas Lake Park, a city-owned public park surrounding a reservoir. A $340,000 artwork at the park, which is home to a dilapidated playground and other deteriorating amenities, would make sense – it’s a popular place where people from the neighborhood go to exercise, fish, picnic and feed the ducks and geese.

But the commission can’t use the $340,000 for art down at Chollas Lake Park, said Commission for Arts and Culture Executive Director Dana Springs.

“There are restrictions on how capital improvement funds can be used,” Springs said.

Plus, Springs thinks the Chollas Water Operations Facility is a great place for public art: Artists are often at their best when they have to work within constraints.

“I don’t have so little faith in artists,” Springs said. “This could be home to an amazing weather-based installation that can only be experienced in this corridor. I mean, there are so many different artists with so many different approaches and we can’t imagine what’s possible.”

Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Public arts consultant Barbara Goldstein agrees that artists can draw inspiration from strange sites for artwork. Artists often interpret and communicate ideas related to the city services happening at the various facilities through their work. But she understands there are accessibility issues with the post-Sept. 11 security measures at water treatment plants.

Goldstein said when she was running the city of Seattle’s public art program, she worked with the city’s utilities department to use percent-for-art funds on a citywide project that used temporary artwork to help explain issues related to salmon conservation. She said it took time, but she was eventually able to loosen up the art-on-premises restrictions that often come with percent-for-art funded projects.

“It’s really easy to fall back and say, ‘Oh we can’t do that because the funds have to be used here,” Goldstein said. “But it’s your city arts leaders’ job to be creative and figure out how the art dollars can serve everyone.”

Springs and Larry Baza, one of the city’s 15 volunteer arts commissioners, said the city has used alternative funding sources, like a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, to get public art into accessible places in San Diego neighborhoods in the past. And they said they’ll likely be doing more of that in the future to ensure equitable access to public art.

But changing the city’s percent-for-art policy isn’t a priority. Instead, they’re adding a new public art funding stream in the latest budget, and looking for other new ways to pay for public art.

“It was a tough row to hoe getting the percent-for-art policy on the books,” Baza said. “And from my experience working with governments, trying to change a policy like that is going to either get it off the books or get it decreased or redefined in ways you don’t want.”

Anthony Santacroce, a public information officer at the city, said when the art at the Chollas Water Operations Facility is completed, folks will have to make an appointment if they want to take a close look at it. But he said that doesn’t take away from the art’s value.

The city employees who work at the facility get to enjoy the work, he said, and people who work in water facilities across the world often tour San Diego’s state-of-the-art plants, so they see the art, too.

“The colon design in the tiling [by Jean Lowe] in the Point Loma Water Treatment Plant, I love that it’s there,” Santacroce said. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek recognition of what that plant is essentially doing, right? And most people will never set foot in there to see that but that doesn’t determine its value.”

Another public art project funded by upcoming improvements to the city’s Pure Water North City project is in the pipeline and will likely have the same accessibility issues. But Springs agrees with Santacroce – art is an important piece of the project.

“The city is a major landholder and for it to be able to put art in the developments it puts forward is a really important statement about the value of artistic practice in the city of San Diego,” she said. “So I think [percent-for-art is] a really great program, but I also think there’s great ways to augment it with other funding sources.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misquoted Robin Brailsford as saying she had to hop the fence of a water treatment plant to see her own artwork. She hopped a fence to see another artist’s work and has seen her own art at Miramar Water Treatment Plant “hundreds of times.” 

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