The towering minimalist sculpture by world-renowned artist Ellsworth Kelly that has been proposed for the twin peninsulas of Embarcadero Park near Seaport Village has met with steady opposition in recent months. Now a local group that calls itself Public Art for the Public is mounting a campaign to open up the selection process and offer alternatives to the Kelly proposal.
Today, members of the group will hold a press conference at Eagle Art Gallery II, 955 Prospect Place in La Jolla, to unveil a model of one alternative--a work by San Diegan Maher Morcos, an Egyptian-born artist who recently produced the statue of Don Diego for the Del Mar Fair and is a well-known Western genre painter.
Morcos' proposal for the Embarcadero site would, like the Kelly design, cost approximately $450,000 and would combine a figurative wall relief in bronze--possibly depicting the history of San Diego--with three towering, interconnected mastlike elements that would also serve as fountains.
Kelly's work, a 68-foot-tall monolith of stainless steel complemented on the opposite peninsula by a concrete prow-like sculpture, was selected by the Port District's five-member arts advisory commission. Amid public opposition to the work's abstract, minimalist style, the port commissioners delayed their decision until July 23, and they have contacted Kelly about altering the design of the concrete element to address concerns about its environmental impact.
According to S. Leslie Jones, Eagle Gallery director and a member of Public Art for the Public, Morcos and retired Port Commissioner Ben Cohen will be at the press conference "to explain the importance of public works of art that offer specific humane qualities to which people can relate." Jones will also distribute written comments from prominent San Diegans expressing support for its campaign. Among the supporters are Betty Riis, an artist and member of the city's Public Arts Advisory Board; California Ballet director Maxine Mahon, and Dot Beasley, director of the A.R.T. Beasley Gallery.
Jones said the opposition group recently has run classified advertisements in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and the San Diego Union and Tribune asking qualified sculptors from across the nation to submit their designs and ideas for the Embarcadero site and that "the response has been very strong."
"We believe the selection process is all wrong," Jones said. "Only a small percentage of the public can tolerate minimal art in a public place, and we just cannot put millions of future art dollars in the hands of (a five-member committee of art experts). We want to see the public involved in public art decisions."
The Port District arts advisory committee consists of La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art director Hugh Davies, Nissan Design International chief Gerald Hirshberg, art critic Isabelle Wasserman, artist Russell Forrester, and Mary Beebe, director of UC San Diego's Stuart sculpture collection. The Kelly proposal was selected from several hundred possibilities, although no open competition was held.
"This sculpture will be making a statement about San Diego and what we're known for," argued Jones. "It'll be in an important spot, and the public wants something beautiful. I think the Kelly design has some merit, but not in that spot (against the downtown skyline on one side, the Coronado bridge on the other). It can be placed more appropriately in a more wide open space. That would allow for us to learn to better appreciate its minimalism."