Monday, November 21, 2011

The Dog Killer and the SF Art Commission

The 59-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Tom Otterness above (click here for his website) has forged a very successful career as a maker of cartoonish bronze sculptures that often look like outtakes from a Ziggy comic strip. Governmental bureaucracies in charge of public arts funding love his work because it's whimsical, inoffensive, and he's a brand-name artist who has created work for the feds (a courthouse in Los Angeles, for instance), the state (in Sacramento, among other capitals) and cities (famously in Manhattan's 8th Avenue/14th Street subway station).

Otterness also occasionally puts in digs at capitalism in his cute sculptures, and this is one reason the right-wing New York Daily News calls him "depraved" (click here). The other reason is that a conceptual art piece Otterness created in 1977 when he was a 25-year-old immigrant to New York City from Wichita, Kansas consisted of adopting a shelter dog, tying the animal to a fence, and then shooting it for a looping film for a gallery. At the time, art critic Gary Indiana in the New York Village Voice wrote a condemning article about the stunt, but then somehow people forgot about it in the age before the internet, and Otterness reinvented himself as a successful public sculptor over the last three decades.

The news of the dog killing has been resurfacing in recent years with animal rights activists especially upset, such as the woman above who was at a special San Francisco Art Commission meeting last Wednesday afternoon urging the group to cancel their two contracts with the sculptor. It seems that on the Art Commission's recommendation, both the General Hospital rebuilding, and the proposed Chinatown Central Subway to Nowhere have $750,000 contracts for sculptures with Otterness for their new spaces.

The Brooklyn library, through a patron, commissioned bronze statues of two lions and their cubs from Otterness a couple of years ago for the same amount, but animal lovers caused an uproar when word spread about the artist's dog killing past, and the commission was eventually cancelled. In September, Joshua Sabatini at the San Francisco Examiner picked up the story and the tabloid paper produced a lurid front page to trumpet the tale (click here). Since that time, members of the San Francisco Art Commission have been in public relations spin overdrive trying to figure out what to do.

Finally, behind closed doors, a decision was made and offered up to the full commission by President PJ Johnston. He is pictured above left next to the similarly abbreviated JD Beltran, the interim Executive Director of Cultural Affairs who replaced Luis Cancel, the Brooklynite who was recently ousted from the high-profile post for absenteeism and the bullying of influential staff members.

PJ Johnston is a fourth-generation San Franciscan and son of a former California State Senator. He has a "communications" business that does public relations for outfits like Stellar, the New York developers of Parkmerced, which is in the process of evicting its elderly tenants from their 1940s garden apartments so they can build high-rise housing.

While doing research for this post, I stumbled across an online article in 7x7 (click here) by the society columnist Catherine Bigelow that chronicles PJ's 40th birthday two years ago at the Purple Onion nightclub which seemingly everyone who is currently in charge of San Francisco attended. The photo above is of PJ and Chinatown fixer Rose Pak, and the photo below features former mayor Willie Brown Jr., Tosca owner Jeanette Etheredge, PJ, and Richard and Eleanor Johns, who are recent controversial appointments by Ed Lee to the Historical Preservation Board and the Airport Commission.

Captain Greg Suhr, the newly appointed San Francisco Chief of Police, was there, and so was Steve Kawa, the Mayoral Chief of Staff under both Newsom and Lee. Seemingly the only person who wasn't there was Ed Lee, or maybe photographer Drew Altizer just didn't get his picture. In Bigelow's article, there is a quote from former Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., once again reveling in his own corruption.
“If you know PJ like I know PJ, then you’d agree that we are all amazed he arrived at this moment tonight,” teased Mayor Brown, referring to PJ’s active lifestyle. “We’ve actually long been celebrating his eventual demise because of all the secrets he has on us!”

PJ announced that he was offering a motion for the General Hospital contract to continue forward, but that he was recommending the cancelation of the MTA subway contract. There were a few timid demurs and questions from the commissioners, but this looked and sounded very much like a rubber-stamp commission, and they quickly passed the motion 11-1.

This didn't make the animal activists particularly happy, as the Solomon-like decision to cut the baby dog in half seemed rather grotesque, but the reasoning was as much economic as anything. San Francisco had already paid Otterness $375,000 for the General Hospital sculptures and wouldn't get anything back if they pulled out now, so the reasoning was, "let's not let our moral fervor get in the way of fiscal prudence."

The questions of how these commissions were approved and vetted never came up, and neither did the central question of why San Francisco government agencies who constantly preach "hire local and buy local" don't do the same thing with publicly funded art. PJ Johnston mentioned at one point that "hiring only San Francisco artists would be illegal because there are federal funds involved," missing the point completely.

Infusing and circulating money into the local economy through local grants should be mission statement number one for any San Francisco bureaucracy, particularly an arts commission, and it's not as if the Bay Area doesn't have enough great creative artists needing work. Johnston also mentioned that "San Francisco is an international tourist destination, and we should have world-class public art," implying that the local stuff was too provincial. In truth, there's nothing more provincial than requiring a New York imprimatur for something to be considered "world-class," and the idea that an international tourist would travel to San Francisco to see anything sponsored by the San Francisco Art Commission is seriously delusional.

To add to their problems, the Arts Commission has fallen under the eyes of open government activists Peter Warfield and Ray W Hartz Jr. (pictured above flanking an unknown lady). These are the people who take the time to sit through boring meetings and pore through self-serving, poorly written minutes in order to inform the clubby bureaucrats that what they are doing is illegal and completely against the spirit and intent of open government laws. The minutes of Wednesday's meeting were filled with notifications of expenditures but in some cases without any amounts or explanations for what the money was being spent upon. This did not amuse Mr. Warfield or Mr. Hartz, who politely expressed their displeasure at every moment that public comment was legally required, an activity that brought them nothing but disdain from the commissioners, even though their motives are ethical and, in a minor way, heroic.


Axel Feldheim said...

Great! I've been waiting for you to write about the Otterness affair. I was highly amused by that Examiner article when it appeared. Gosh, how embarrassing! I like the mischievous little sculptures Otterness created for the NY subway, but it's disappointing that the Arts Commission seems so disconnected from the local arts scene. The sums of money involved are impressive. No starving artists here.

momo said...

Wow! how many secrets, indeed! I wonder how much juicy gossip you'd overhear if you sat in a bathroom stall at the Purple Onion during that party!

SFGirl said...

Hi, I spoke to the SFAC during this meeting, where I brought up two objections. The first objection was the very fact the $1.5 million was going to a non-Bay Area artist. (Before the Otterness discussion, Commissioner Chew had finished his report by asking the commission and the public to buy from the local street artists.) I directed my comment to Mr. Chew that if SF leaders are asking us to support local artists, then mayhaps the SFAC ought to do the same.

My second objection was, as expected, that I did not want SFAC paying two substantial contracts to a cold blooded dog killer.

"The questions of how these commissions were approved and vetted never came up, and neither did the central question of why San Francisco government agencies who constantly preach "hire local and buy local" don't do the same thing with publicly funded art. "

namastenancy said...

Thanks for the update and the behind the scenes look at some of the SFAC's byzantine maneuverings. Many of these points are exactly the same points that I brought up in my article on Otterness.

sfmike said...

Dear SFGirl: I remember your testimony and thought, well, she gets it. But it was a complete institutional circle-the-wagons kind of city commission meeting that was frankly pathetic.

Ann Treboux said...

Howard Lazar the director of the street artist program will never retire. After 44 years of stumbling all over himself; making a total mockery of the program and having another full time job as a janitor at the South Ebd Rowing Club-it is time for the citizens of SF to out him.
He has cost taxpayers millions of dlars in legal fees in order to avoid giving documents to members of the public who request them.
Kate Paterson was hired to clean up his messes. No good Art in the street. No one with any vision will not be able to put up with his petty politics. Get rid of Lazar.