Personalities, Permits and the Impracticality of Public Art - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Personalities, Permits and the Impracticality of Public Art

A local artist and the city’s interim director of the Commission for Arts and Culture have butted heads over two recent projects. To keep one alive, artist Roberto Salas says he’ll bypass the city altogether.

Artist Roberto Salas has learned two lessons when it comes to public art in San Diego: Be patient, and keep the city out of it.

Salas has worked on city-commissioned projects since 1988, but doubts he’ll ever be asked to do another.

That’s because his latest public art project has further strained an already tense relationship with the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture.

As the artist-in-residence for San Diego Museum of Art’s Open Spaces program, which revitalizes low-income neighborhoods using public art, Salas’s endurance of the city’s involvement has worn out. He was visibly frustrated at a recent Lincoln Park community meeting, where he joined Open Space’s project coordinator Irma Esquivias in delivering some bad news: After waiting six months for a response from the city, Salas and the museum received notice that a proposed LED-light installation over one of San Diego’s most violent intersections is pretty much dead.

The news didn’t come as a shock. Even as excitement over the project grew, doubts already loomed about whether it would win approval from the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, which told KPBS the project would need clearance from multiple city departments.

City staffers at the commission reviewed a preliminary proposal of the project, and determined that the LED lights would interfere with traffic, and would never make it past the city traffic department or California vehicle codes.

But Salas said he already suspected the proposal would be a nonstarter.

“The impracticality of art becomes an issue,” he said. “Before even looking at [the proposal] it is a no.”

But Esquivias says she’s grateful that “no” didn’t come until now. “Would we have had such an ambitious and conceptual piece if we were told from the very beginning that is wasn’t possible?” she said. “Had we included the voices of reality checks, we wouldn’t have had this great [community] dialogue.”

She said the commission’s absence from the brainstorming phase was a positive thing: It allowed the community to dream big. But she’s learned from her experience: in the future, Esquivias said she hopes to have more guidance from the beginning.

Salas is learning from this experience too. It’s not the first time the artist has butted heads with the commission and its interim director, Dana Springs.

In 2012, Springs recommended that Salas’s decades-old “Night Visions” sculptures – originally commissioned in connection with the 1988 Super Bowl – be de-installed. When the commission instead agreed to restore the artwork, Salas said he was never granted an audience with Springs to negotiate his involvement in the restoration:

“I hoped we could just sit down and talk about it,” said Salas. “I think there’s room for negotiation in everything. [Springs] found someone else to restore it. They probably gave them a better quote. It’s kind of a little weird that they would do that, but it’s fine. They are restored. I’m fine with it. The person did a good job.”

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much love lost between Salas and Springs. On the “Night Visions” restoration, Springs told us earlier this month: “Remember that we are managing objects. The city is not obligated to engage the original artist.”

After his latest brush with the commission, Salas said it’s time to sort things out with Springs.

“I would like to sit down with her and ask her how to correct [our] relationship,” Salas said. “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”

In an email, Springs said her interaction with Salas on “Night Visions” was strictly business, and that the city simply chose a vendor that came in at a lower cost. It was nothing personal.

“There is no conflict or rift with Mr. Roberto Salas,” Springs said. “Installing art on city property is a complicated process that requires measured evaluation often adjudicated by community-based panels.”

But Salas still worries that a perceived discord with the commission will affect his future work.

“I know I’ll never get another commission from [Springs] in this town,” he said. “My charge is to continue to do what I do.”

Now Salas has a new solution for getting the Lincoln Park art project off the ground: Avoid the city altogether.

Salas plans to push the Lincoln Park project forward by proposing art that wouldn’t require city permits or approval. At the update meeting, Salas told the community that this is the only way to see a project come to fruition.

And the clock is ticking: Despite a recent extension, the Open Spaces grant requires the Lincoln Park project be completed by June 2015. Salas and Esquivias agree that the city’s six-month decision turn-around time would simply take too long.

“We need to be efficient, we need to be smart and we really need to be on the ball,” Salas said. “There’s still money there that has not been spent.  We are the ones who put our neck out there and said we can do something, so we need to make sure we can do something.”

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