My wife and granddaughter shared in the excitement of this year’s Chalk-It-Up Festival in Sacramento by joining 200 local artists in transforming squares of sidewalk concrete into colorful artwork. The annual event serves as a fundraiser to promote youth art programs in the area.
Never once did I hear them mention they were inspired by artist Jeff Koons, that darling of the elitist and speculative world of modern art. His $8 million sculpture for the new downtown arena did not motivate them to hunch over their labor of love for two days or induce them to contribute $100 for the privilege. The contentious debate over the expenditure of $5 million from the city’s Arts in Public Places program to help buy Koons’ creation did not enter into their minds. For them, and I’m sure most others, it was art for art’s sake.
I bring up these points because there is an invidious, self-serving campaign afoot to hail the purchase of the Koons sculpture as a catalyst for local art activity in the past year. This is especially insulting to area artists, who got shafted in the arena art-selection process by a cabal of self-indulgent local power brokers who confuse obscene prices with quality art.
The chutzpah of these folks is amazing: they hog most of our public art money, inflict upon us a pricey artist known for his “monuments to vapidity,” imply they have brought world-class art to this little hick town, and take credit for the vitality and productivity of our long-struggling arts community.
In the Sacramento Bee’s promo piece for today’s unveiling of the Koons sculpture, Shelly Willis, chairwoman of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and a prime mover in shepherding the Koons deal through City Hall, boldly calls the purchase a catalyst for the Sacramento Mural Festival, the Art Hotel, the creation of a stunning mural under the W/X freeway and the recognition of homegrown artists across the country and world.
“(The Koons debate) gave us an opportunity to talk about our values, to talk about our environment and what we want it to look like, and it gave people the impetus to get together and talk about art,” Willis said. “And it hasn’t stopped.”
Rather than an exercise in Athenian democracy, the Koons deal had the smell of big-money interests, especially owners of the Sacramento Kings, muscling another self-serving deal past a compliant City Council. The cost of the new arena, shared by the city and the Kings, generated a $5.5 million fee payable the Arts in Public Places program. That was more than enough for local artists to produce excellent art for the arena area.
Instead, we have a piece of meretricious art that will define Sacramento for years to come.