SAN DIEGO — What seemed impossible has become all but definite: A local arts venture has won the enthusiastic support of both arts professionals and city officials. The project, "Luna Luna," is described as an outdoor contemporary art museum, and its 28 works are scheduled to be installed temporarily at Balboa Park's Inspiration Point, the site of the old Naval Hospital.
Local arts leaders are pleased that the project will bring the work of such internationally known artists as Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Georg Baselitz and others to San Diego in an innovative, participatory form.
City administrators are smiling, too, not only because Life magazine called "Luna Luna" the "most dizzying, dazzling art show on Earth," but because the project will come here at no cost to the city. The outdoor museum, or art park, scheduled to be in San Diego for 18 months, probably beginning in March, is a gift from the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation, which is based in Wilmington, Del., but maintains strong ties to San Diego through its trustee, Rose Patek, who lives here part of each year.
There is one drawback, however: The foundation wants to charge admission. Foundation officials and city representatives have not yet decided on an amount, nor how such proceeds and those collected from the possible sales of concessions will be divided, but an admission fee is a certainty.
"My guess is that it will be used to cover the foundation's operating costs," said Deputy City Manager Bruce Herring, whose office is putting the finishing touches on a contract with the Birch Foundation. That foundation, which bought the collection of artworks this year for an undisclosed sum, will cover all expenses of bringing it here, installing it, maintaining it and providing security during the stay.
Charging admission, however nominal, seems a strange move for a foundation that has given away $20 million in recent years to support cultural, educational and medical programs nationwide. Local beneficiaries have included the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Old Globe Theatre, 3's Company and Dancers, the San Diego Museum of Art and Sharp Memorial Hospital.
Trustee Patek, who has facilitated the local showing of "Luna Luna," refused to be interviewed about the project, saying the news is premature because the foundation and the city have not yet signed a contract. Both Herring and Park and Recreation Department head George Loveland, who is also involved in the negotiations, say that no snags are expected, and that the deal is all but certain. If installation begins as planned in December, the park will open in March.
"Luna Luna" was originated by Austrian artist Andre Heller with a $500,000 grant from a German magazine. The project has been displayed only once, in Hamburg in 1987 for just over two months. Described as a "territory of surprises" by the Birch Foundation, "Luna Luna" includes a walk-in "Shadow Room" by German artist Baselitz; a musical "Enchanted Tree" by British-born, Los Angeles-based Hockney; music by the contemporary American composer Philip Glass and more.
The Birch Foundation plans to tour "Luna Luna" around the United States, starting in San Diego, and then seek a permanent home for it.
Herring, of the city manager's office, said there is "strong feeling" on the City Council in support of finding a suitable local site to house the works permanently. Although "Luna Luna" will occupy 7 acres in its temporary site on Inspiration Point, the Birch Foundation is looking nationwide for a permanent site of 40 acres to accommodate an expansion of the collection.
"It will be a wonderland for children and adults," said Councilwoman Judy McCarty, who chairs the council's Public Facilities and Recreation Committee. The committee voted unanimously to support the project in May. "All the discussion was very favorable."
The city's Commission for Arts and Culture has lent its support for the project, too, according to director Victoria Hamilton.
"It's really exciting," she said. "We're hoping there will be some ways for the commission to help make this a successful event."
One of Hamilton's ideas is to involve local artists in the opening festivities for "Luna Luna," or to involve them in performances on the site.
By all accounts, "Luna Luna" is a terrific gift to the city, and the Birch Foundation deserves hearty thanks. But the foundation should reconsider its decision to charge admission. A fee would automatically limit access to the park, even if special outreach programs are implemented.
In keeping with the generous spirit of the Birch Foundation gift, and the free-spirited artworks themselves, "Luna Luna" ought to be open equally to all.