It’s the dream behind every public art project.
Spend a paltry sum for a work that becomes the city’s signature piece of art and appreciates in value faster than a home in the hills.
Little did the Berkeley officials know when they commissioned renowned Harlem artist Romare Bearden to paint a 12-foot by 16-foot mural for the City Council chambers that their dream would come true.
Not only is the work, “Berkeley—The City and Its People, 1973,” now cemented as the city’s logo, but the project which cost $16,000 in 1972 was most recently valued between $750,000 and $1 million.
“It is possibly the most valuable asset the city has that is not nailed to the ground,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “It’s a real sense of pride and joy.”
On Friday (today) the city welcomes back its esteemed mural from a nearly two-year national tour as part of the National Gallery of Art retrospective on Bearden’s work. Bearden died in 1988 at the age of 76.
“I don’t know of any other city that has a work from a major artist in its council chambers,” said Peter Selz, a retired UC Berkeley art history professor and the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum.
The push to install a mural at the council chambers was sparked by two African American councilmembers, Ira Simmons and D’army Bailey. After they were elected in 1970, they protested that the chamber walls were decorated with pictures of Lincoln and Washington, but no people of color, said Carl Worth, founding director of the Berkeley Art Center and coordinator for the mural project.
Around that time, Bearden happened to be in Berkeley for an exhibit of his work. Worth and Selz immediately decided that he was man for the job.
“I suggested that instead of a token photograph of a black person, why not have an accomplished black artist do a mural?” Selz said.
The two discussed the project with Bearden, who lived in Harlem, and he expressed his enthusiasm for the job.
“He loved the idea of working with Berkeley because he was a person of strong social conscience,” Worth said.
For a week in 1972, Worth toured the city with Bearden visiting black churches, Telegraph Avenue festivals, UC Berkeley faculty meetings, and a city council meeting.
“Romare was a man who loved people and he responded very intensely to the people he met,” Worth said.
For Bearden, the mural was a departure from his past works. He had never before painted a mural, and most of his work was biographical from his childhood in North Carolina and his adult years in Harlem.
Bearden worked for 30 years as a social worker for New York City, painting at nights and on weekends. By the 1960s he came up with a collage process in which he blew up images in scale and integrated them into the collages.
“He was ready for a mural,” Worth said. “It was an opportunity for him to make a collage on a larger scale.”
The work debuted in January 1974, to a typically mixed Berkeley review, Worth said. “Some people thought it was too avant-guard, others had wanted there to be an open process that included local artists, but a lot of people liked it from the start.”
“I was delighted with it,” Selz said. “That he managed to get so many aspects of the life of the city into one space was incredible.”
The most brilliant feature, he added, were the four different colored profile heads on the bottom center, which symbolized the city’s diversity.
The design would later replace UC’s Sather Tower as the city’s logo.
“The fact that this has become part of the fabric of the city is a pretty good measure of the quality of the work,” Worth said.
A welcome-back ceremony will be held today at 4 p.m. (Friday) at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.