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Thursday, April 30, 2009

So, the City's Broke -- Why Not Sell Some of Our $86 Million Art Collection?

Posted By on Thu, Apr 30, 2009 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge Very nice! How much?
  • Very nice! How much?

There's an old joke about a down-on-his-luck captain of industry attempting to impress an important visitor by barking an order to his secretary on the intercom: "Get me my broker."

Her answer bursts his bubble: "Stock or pawn?"

It's a decision that hits a little too close to home for San Francisco. The city is facing a massive budget shortfall, government workers are losing their jobs, enraged zombies are crawling up out of the sewers to protest cuts to the Water Department (okay, that hasn't happened -- yet): Times are tough. Does it make sense to soften the blow by selling off some of the more than 3,277 pieces of art owned by the city and valued at roughly $86 million?

The staff and commissioners of San Francisco's Arts Commission have a short answer: No. This, they say, is for two reasons: You shouldn't do that -- and you can't do that.

"Occasionally someone will float the idea of selling public art to save a staff job," notes P.J. Johnson, the president of the Arts Commission. "It's just not realistic."

In addition to the notion that selling off a city's cultural treasures to slake the day-to-day budget is akin to vending one's blood or burning the timbers of one's own ship for heat -- it's also damn near impossible to do here in San Francisco (perhaps because our forefathers worried that, if it were easy, people would do it). But, then, nothing is easy in San Francisco. Artists hoping to give -- give! -- works to the city must "have signed and stamped engineering drawings, liability and fine arts insurance, transportation insurance, and attend a number of meetings and presentations." Selling public art is even more complicated.

The city's "de-accession" policy on how to remove and/or sell city-owned art runs a full seven pages long. There are 14 conditions justifying the removal and possible sale of a work of art -- and none of them is "city is broke and needs the cash." In fact, the only money-related rationale is "The work can be sold to finance, or can be traded for, a work of greater importance." (others include "The work presents a threat to public safety," "The work is fraudulent or not authentic," or "Significant adverse public reaction over an extended period of time [5 years or more]." Five years! Get the picture?).

But, let's say the city wanted to sell, say, Vaillancourt Fountain on Justin Herman Plaza (or one of the 738 items in storage in Brooks Hall beneath Bill Graham Auditorium or other city storerooms). First, the Arts Commission could well have the unpleasant task of notifying the piece's donor -- and the city attorney might be called in to interpret whether the donor's terms even allow for a sale. (Also, keep in mind, a work of art's assessed value for insurance

purposes and what it will fetch on the open market are not always

synonymous).

A staff report will then have to be prepared weighing the city attorney's advice, a thorough analysis of why the artwork is being sold, public feedback (shudder), an independent appraisal of the piece's value, multiple expert opinions on the impact of removing the piece, and a full history of the piece and the process of acquiring and removing it.

I could go on, but there's another two solid pages of rules to be followed. But the most important rule is the following (Section 7.4.4, for those keeping track): "...All proceeds from any sale or auction less any payment due the artist under the California Resale Royalties Act, shall be credited to the Public Arts Fund, and the monies contributed to the fund from the sale, exchange or exhibition of a work of art under the jurisdiction of the Arts Commission shall be expended exclusively for the purpose of acquiring or maintaining works of art for the same public structure for which the original work of art was acquired." (their underline -- this is serious stuff.)

In other words, the city has glued shut the cookie jar to prevent anyone from attempting to liquidate San Francisco's artistic heritage for fun and profit. That showed forethought; too bad no one did the same for Muni.

Enjoy the Vaillancourt Fountain, folks. It isn't going anywhere.



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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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