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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Private Donors Forced to Kick In To Deliver Maya Lin's Latest San Francisco Public Sculpture

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 at 1:25 PM

May Lin's What Is Missing? cost more than initially budgeted -- but the Arts Commission stresses that taxpayers were not stuck with the balance - BRUCE DAMONTE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Bruce Damonte Photography
  • May Lin's What Is Missing? cost more than initially budgeted -- but the Arts Commission stresses that taxpayers were not stuck with the balance
In a way, it's especially fitting that renowned sculptor Maya Lin's latest San Francisco work -- which was unveiled today at the California Academy of Sciences -- is titled What Is Missing? For a while, what was missing were the funds to build the installation the way the city thought fit.

Today's unveiling capped an unusual four-year stretch for the city's Arts Commission in which Lin -- best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. -- opted to build two sculptures for the city instead of just one per the original agreement. Where The Land Meets The Sea was unveiled last year on the Academy's West Terrace. Jill Manton, the San Francisco Arts Commission's director of programs, notes that Lin did not go over her $1.2 million overall budget. Yet constructing What Is Missing? in the manner the Arts Commission desired, however, would have broken that budget -- forcing the Commission to make the unusual move of raising private funds to augment a public art expenditure.

The announced cost of What Is Missing?, $857,891, doesn't include $56,400 contributed by the Academy of Sciences and another $30,000 of in-kind work solicited from Webcor.

When Lin conferred with the city in March, "The budget allowed her to do it in painted steel. Aesthetically and from a maintenance point of view, the Arts Commission wanted bronze," explained Manton. "So we urged her to go to bronze and she said 'Who's going to pay the difference?' I said, 'I'll go to Webcor.'" While Webcor got the work done for $30k, Manton says the cost difference between painted steel and bronze is about $70,000.

As a result, Manton added, Lin's decision to build a pair of sculptures was "cost-neutral for the city." It wasn't cost-neutral for the artist, however. Instead of delivering one sculpture in 2008, Lin took the extra time -- and paid her staff over that time -- to construct two works and complete them in '08 and '09.

The Arts Commission is not in the habit of augmenting its agreed-upon payments to artists with private fund-raising drives. "We want people to work within the [budget], so we create a level playing field," Manton said. "If someone is hired for a $50,000 project and then $30,000 in fund-raising is required, that's not fair. Someone who would have applied if [the budget] was $80,000 could say 'Why couldn't I have done this?'"

In Lin's case, however, Manton said the city was getting a great deal -- and the city and Academy were happy to unveil this latest work a year past the original due date as it coincides nicely with next week's one-year anniversary of the Academy's re-opening.

Moving away from dollars and cents, what is missing from What Is Missing? are scores of extinct and endangered animal species. This is Lin's first interactive work and features a "listening cone" complete with a screen displaying more than 20 minutes of video footage and sound recordings of threatened wildlife. (Learn more here)

Finally, countering the inevitable wails regarding $1.2 million being spent on art installations while the city is in a financial straitjacket -- it warrants mentioning, once again, that municipalities are not governed on a Scrooge McDuck Money Bin basis. The funds allotted to the Arts Commission could never have gone to General Hospital or Muni or paving the streets. Two percent of city public works project budgets are set aside for public art per a 40-year-old city ordinance.

So take it up with the voters of 1969. 

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

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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