A couple of large sculptures installed by the pedestrian bridge at University Avenue over the I-80 freeway are set for removal — not because they’re ugly, but because the Berkeley arts commission has said they aren’t weathering well and they will cost too much repair and maintain.

The official word about the “Berkeley Big People”sculptures by local artist Scott Donahue, according to an art conservation report cited in August by the Daily Cal, is that “The artwork is in poor condition due to the use of unsuitable materials, which has led to systemic material failure.” The pair of sculptures — one on the east end of the bridge depicting Berkeley’s history of protest along with its love of the arts and intellectual pursuits, and one on the west end depicting aquatic and leisure activities in East Shore State Park — were fabricated out of fiberglass, bronze, and steel and installed in 2008. Recent photos show how poorly the protester sculpture is aging, and the Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission voted in August to have them removed rather than spend up to $96,000 repairing them and tens of thousands more each year maintaining them.

An assessment of the pieces found cracks and significant weathering in both, and the commission voted 7 to 1 for “deaccession.”

Now, as Bay City News reports, a lawyer for Donahue, Gary Fergus, has sent a letter to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin and Berkeley Economic Development Manager Jordan Klein requesting a six-month delay in the sculptures’ removal, saying that the artist has not been given adequate time to find a new home for them.

“The threatened destruction of ‘Berkeley Big People’ under false pretenses and after an arbitrary and capricious application of the brand new Artwork Deaccession Policy will result in irreparable harm to my client’s reputation,” the letter reads.

Fergus further contends that the city “never made any good faith efforts to maintain ‘Berkeley Big People.'”

Curbed notes that these sculptures, particularly the one depicting angry protesters waving hollow signs, have not exactly been widely loved since their installation 11 years ago. Chronicle critic Kenneth Baker wrote of the protester sculpture in 2008 that it “scores a new black eye on the already battered face of public art in the Bay Area.”

Perhaps from a vehicle passing below on Interstate 80, the sculpture high on the east end of a long pedestrian bridge communicates a flash of appreciation for Berkeley’s long contrarian streak. But viewed on foot, up close, it reads as caricature, and thus, as mockery. It turns any thought of activist politics into dismissive thoughts of political correctness.

It remains to be seen how soon the sculptures may get removed, but it is an interesting moment for a region that typically fiercely guards its public art.

Photo: Thomas Hawk



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