One of the three "cowboy hats" in the sculpture by Claes Oldenburg… (Vern Fisher, Monterey County…)
When the sculpture outside the Salinas rodeo arena was unveiled in 1982, bands played, Boy Scouts led a salute to the flag and the mayor presented sculptor Claes Oldenburg with a commemorative salad bowl.
"Hat in Three Stages of Landing" was more than a monumental work by the world-renowned Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen. It was a point of civic pride, a way to let the world know that Salinas was a place where art and culture thrived along with endless acres of lettuce and broccoli.
Today the veggies are doing fine, but the sculpture — three immense yellow hats pierced with dozens of holes and perched on poles of varying heights — is deteriorating. The 3,500-pound pieces are faded, peeling and etched with graffiti. Kids wander over from the nearby community center to climb on them, and in bad weather homeless people seek shelter beneath them.
For Mayor Dennis Donohue, fixing the hats is a way to set right years of city neglect and put Salinas on the cultural map once again. A radicchio grower stepping down as mayor after three terms, Donohue is asking the City Council to earmark up to $160,000 for the piece's restoration.
"It's an investment that will pay for itself," he said in an interview. "I'm convinced it's a destination opportunity. We can have a festival! If Gilroy does garlic, Salinas can do hats."
A gritty city of 150,000 in a region that grows 80% of the world's lettuce, Salinas calls itself the "Salad Bowl of the World." Its gang problem is serious enough that city officials have conferred with defense analysts from the Naval Postgraduate School in nearby Monterey. Even before the recession, dismal finances nearly forced Salinas to shut its libraries.
Despite the setbacks, a cultural community has made its mark in the blue-collar city. Downtown is anchored by the National Steinbeck Center, a museum honoring writer John Steinbeck. Over the years, the city has grown more positive about its most famous native son, whose books were burned by angry growers outside the town library in 1939.
In 1977, local art boosters secured a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, and private donors threw in $75,000 more. Soon Oldenburg, the Yale-educated son of a Swedish diplomat, and Van Bruggen, a Dutch-born art scholar, were pondering just what to build in a big grassy field bounded by the rodeo arena, livestock pens, a municipal pool and a civic auditorium.
Oldenburg already was famous for his oversized, slyly humorous take on everyday objects, such as the giant lipstick in a Yale courtyard and a 45-foot-tall steel clothespin in downtown Philadelphia. Later, there would be the huge ice cream cone dumped upside down on a shopping mall roof in Cologne, Germany; the 50-foot-long teaspoon with a 15-foot-high cherry on top in Minneapolis; the three-story binoculars at the heart of a Frank Gehry office building in Venice and dozens more.
"I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself," he wrote in a 1961 manifesto.
In Salinas, that credo translated into hats. On a broad, grassy expanse, Oldenburg and his wife could convey a sense that a rodeo rider had tossed off a bright yellow hat, which they captured in three distinct moments of descent.
The design was controversial. Some backers nearly pulled out because they insisted no real cowboy would turn the brim down, as in the design. Oldenburg responded that the brim-down look evoked a saddle. Besides, he said in a 1982 Times interview, the hat also was meant to reflect the area's fieldworkers: "I didn't want the shape to be confining so that one group could say, 'This is our hat, not your hat.' "
Oldenburg said the holes perforating the 18-foot-wide hats were meant to suggest a salad colander, a nod to the biggest business in town.
Even so, some Salinas residents are still riled.
Last May, a letter to the Salinas Californian called the hats "a monstrosity."
"Those so-called sculptures are an insult to our western heritage and to the men who herded stock in the West for more than 100 years," the writer said.
Donohue has heard it before — his father was head of parks and recreation when the sculpture was installed — but he says he's confident that local donors will step up again, reducing the city's financial burden.
"I'm a salesman married to a farmer's daughter," he said. "I think I know what I can sell."
At her shop downtown, Trish Sullivan, founder of a group called Destination Salinas, offers postcards of the hats and bumper stickers urging their restoration. An artist, Sullivan has helped school classes fashion yellow-hat replicas large and small.
"We're still kind of rural," she said. "For us to have a world-class sculpture in our city is pretty amazing."