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Public art must face city, BART regulations

By Erika Fricke Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday March 14, 2001



For public art downtown, beauty’s not enough. It has to stand up to acts of God and bow to community regulation.  

Two art projects were approved by the Civic Arts Commission last September for placement on Shattuck Avenue. Six months later finds them still being reviewed to make certain that the spot chosen is perfect.  

Far from frustrated, the artists see the wait and the regulations as part of an important process of artistic creation. 

John Toki, whose sculpture “s-Hertogenbosch” – named after the city in Holland where he began the work – is already completed. Toki has had public art commissions in the past. 

“I’ve learned that the reason these things take a long time is because the public wants to get it right,” he said. “I’d rather have a group be totally satisfied, and everybody’s informed about what they’re going to get. I think they get a better piece.” 

Any public work of art must satisfy a number of very specific rules. 

“People don’t realize how much work there is behind each one of these pieces before it goes up,” said Mary Anne Benton, secretary for the Civic Arts Commission. The process of selecting the pieces involves extensive public involvement and a long selection and interview process. Once a piece is selected, the artist must prove its long-term durability.  

That means, for example, that in an earthquake it won’t fall down. 

For Wang Po Shu one of the artists whose sculpture will be placed along Shattuck Avenue, that restriction is just fine.  

“As an artist you don’t want that to happen anyway,” he said, referring to the possibility that unstable art might injure somebody. “All your life you’d be thinking about that,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to work.” 

When selecting a piece, the commission considers whether the materials and design are strong, and the artist submits an engineering report that proves the project will be stable long term.  

The art must withstand more than natural disasters. In addition to structural viability, the piece must come with a maintenance plan and have some graffiti protection.  

John N. Roberts, a Berkeley landscape architect who’s been on several of the advisory panels said artists now know they have to work within certain guidelines. “What you’re looking for with public art is someone who understands (the guidelines) but is also going to bring something totally unusual,” he said.  

“The difficult thing is to do this within a budget,” he said. “Often the requirements are so stringent and the budget is so limited that you have difficulty doing the kind of piece that you want to do.” 

Berkeley is paying $50,000 each for the two sculptures with money from Measure S. That includes the costs of material and installation. 

The artists chosen for the Shattuck Avenue projects understand well the difficulties of making sustainable art and address the questions within the design of the projects.  

Toki has spent 20 years perfecting his design for earthquake-proof ceramic sculptures. He began constructing his 14- foot ceramic sculpture, while living in Holland, helping create earthquake safe ceramic projects. “So the piece for Berkeley is earthquake proof,” he said. “The (art) commission knew that, if I put it up it was going to stay.” 

Toki hopes the brightly colored sculpture will arrest passers-by and draw them to look closer at the piece and even to touch it. He doesn’t worry about damage from too much contact. “It’s four inches thick and it will weigh close to two tons when it’s finished,” he said. “It’s going to be physically strong, the interior is fiber-glass lined. It’s going to take something pretty durable to scratch it.” 

But for Toki, the best protection is the art itself. “There’s something about ceramic that doesn’t draw vandals to my piece,” he said. 

Wang’s sculpture, “An Earth Song for Berkeley,” is in the form of a giant tuning fork that will vibrate at an inaudible frequency. He said that part of artistic creation means taking the requirements of earthquake and public safety into account.  

“My work is always site specific,” he said, meaning not only specific to physical environment like surrounding buildings, or mountains, but also to the environmental factors that affect a piece of art. He included both the fact that California is “earthquake country” and the “social reality of graffiti” as environmental factors an artist must work with. “Even when I work indoors, it’s always site specific, there’s another set of criterion or factors that one has to deal with,” he said mentioning problems associated with particular solvents. “If we want to put something in public it’s natural that we consider that part of the reality.” 

The placement of these pieces is complicated by their location. The commissioners want them at the corner of Center Street and Shattuck, near the central BART entrance.  

“The sites are so complex, there’s so much happening there,” said Steven Huss, a consultant who’s helping Berkeley through the process of placing the art. But, he said that the movement and excitement around that area is “also what makes it desirable for public art.” 

Any projects on land that BART uses, or above the BART tunnels, must also be approved for use by BART. “They have to make sure that whatever is above their tunnel has to be constructed safely so if there was an earthquake a sculpture wouldn’t crash through onto the BART train,” said Benton of the Civic Arts Commission. 

In addition, any sculpture must fit in with the long range plans BART has for that site. 

Added conditions do not phase Wang. If an artist knows the situation he or she is working with ahead of time, he said, they can tailor the project accordingly, using the complications from boundaries to force new levels of creativity.  

“It’s within the conditions you find freedom, if you pose the conditions as limitations your are restricting yourself, you are imprisoning yourself,” he said. “We do live in a society we do not live on an island.”