City of Artless Politics: Rejecting Nancy Rubins Print E-mail

nancy_rubin(San Diego Reader December 2, 1999)

On Friday, November 19, the San Diego Convention Center board of director's vote was tied, three for Nancy Rubins's proposed Harbor Drive sculpture—the 102-foot-high, 100-ton arch of 60 cabled-together fiberglass boats—and three against. The deciding vote would come from the board's seventh member, chairman William A. Roper.

"We have a split decision," Roper said. "It's not wrong that we have a difference of opinion, [and] that doesn't make me a bad person. I'd rather not be the tie-breaking vote here."

Before casting his vote, Roper said it was necessary to categorize the responses to Rubins's piece that the board had received: first, the phone calls were "overwhelmingly negative"; second, e-mails, faxes, and letters were "two-thirds positive, one-third negative"; third, the two public-art meetings the previous day, totaling 75 people, were "roughly mixed." He said they could "tally it" either way, as many yeas as nays.

"My biggest concern," Roper continued, "remains that people have expressed an initial reaction of not liking it." He was bothered by a particular label, "the shipwreck term," which was "the preponderance" of what he had received. "There's no way to overcome [this] initial reaction. If it's in a public place and seen by visitors and they see a shipwreck, that's my biggest concern."

Despite his misgivings, it wasn't clear Roper's vote would end Rubins's bid. Roper would be voting for a motion by boardmember Stephen P. Cushman that they "go back to the drawing board" and ask the nine-member oversight committee (which had unanimously endorsed Rubins's work) for "additional options," that is, other proposals that might include this piece as one of those options.

Cushman described himself as a person who supports the arts. In fact, as a member of the Port Commission, he had just voted to spend $170,000 on public art projects. But this piece caused him too much "mixed feelings."

Catherine Sass, coordinator of the Port Commission's Public Art Program, reminded the board that, due to the budget and Harbor Drive's current construction, Rubins's sculpture must get the go-ahead now or else "it doesn't go forward." All understood: Roper would decide its fate.

Still, Roper wanted to know from Rubins why "so many people saw it as a shipwreck." Without challenging that claim, she replied, "If someone sees a shipwreck in this, I can't do anything about that. My intent is not a shipwreck. There's nothing wrecked in these boats. They're all beautifully made." Rubins insisted, as did others, that "a great work of art must evolve over time."

To no avail. Roper voted with Cushman, Brian Seltzer, and Patrick Shea, four against three (Gail Stoorza-Gill, Fahari Jeffers, and Maria Nieto Senour), and, finally, it was over. At the door, Cushman couldn't get past Rubins. The L.A. artist delivered her own torpedo to Cushman's turned head.

"Friends said to me, 'You know, Nancy, San Diego is really a provincial city. It's immature, and you don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting your work accepted.' They told me it's full of small-minded people. And, Mr. Cushman, you just proved them right. I'm sorry you're so petty."


That indeed nailed it shut, ending a week of strange dialogue between the media and the public, citizens and artists, board members and city arts and culture commissioners. The board's vote seemed surprising because that morning ten people, the three female voting board members, and the two non-voting board members, Reint Reinders and Duke Sobek, testified to their approval, some their adoration, for Rubins's proposal. Among the yeasayers was oversight committee member Gerry McAllister, who said, "Don't be swayed by some negative comments. The public has a right to their opinion. But we have to consider what [their] opinion is based on and [their] background." Sculptor Malcolm Jones said that the Eiffel Tower, at first "vilified by critics," would become "a huge symbol of the city." To which Roper's deadpan retort was, "Isn't that the same Eiffel Tower that's modeled on the one in Las Vegas?"

Besides the artist, the victim in this art project/media event is San Diego's public discourse, that is, the language that community leaders and the media use to communicate. It began with the term "shipwreck," tagged on by the Union-Tribune editorial writers: "Proposed sculpture is truly a shipwreck." Under that heading the Union published six condemnatory letters and its own op-ed piece, "Cutting-edge ugliness." Two days before, the paper had featured art critic Robert Pincus's endorsement and a photo of the model. The editors, however, wrote that the photo "did enough justice to Rubins's proposal to bring out the art critic in just about everybody who saw it."

Then the TV stations weighed in. Two people told me that the morning anchors at KUSI-TV, Laura Buxton and Stan Miller, had loads of fun teasing the sculpture on their morning program. I tracked KFMB-TV's coverage on News 8, where giggles were also hard to suppress. Denise Yamada introduced the story: "Is it art or just plain ugly?" Reporter Kathy Chin showed snippets of the outreach sessions held the day before the vote at the convention center. Three people didn't like it and one did. A skillful repartee ended the segment:

Yamada: "Now this so-called sculpture [Chin giggles] would be higher than the Convention Center?"

Chin: "It would be a little bit above 102 feet up in the air, which is pretty tall and, as you heard, just about everybody we talked to, they don't like it [shaking a sour face]."

Yamada: "Who knows. We'll see what those committees have to say."

Chin: [nervous laugh] "Yeah, we'll see."

Finally, we viewers were asked to vote our preference online at KFMB's website. Before the outreach sessions began, I asked Gail Goldman, public art director for San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture, about criteria for public-art proposals.

"The criteria are based on the process. The criteria were the goals of the project: to mitigate the expansion's impact on blocked access to the bay; to provide a terminus to fit at Harbor, [where] Fifth ends; to create a landmark to enhance the landmark status of the convention center."

The criterion from "this point forward," Goldman said, is "not to evaluate the artwork but to study whether or not the process was adhered to." She was adamant: The committee members are "not adjudicators of taste."

Catherine Sass said the committee never prescribed content. "We don't want to tell an artist what art is or should be. That's why we hire artists. What we want to tell them is what our needs are for the site."

Much of the ambiguity attached to this sculpture stemmed from a misperception of an unintended plan, whether this or any public artwork must represent something per se.

"If this sculpture is supposed to represent the view cut off by the convention center," citizen Bob White said, "then this is an abysmal failure. It doesn't represent San Diego. If you look out at the bay, I don't see those kinds of boats."

Artist Robin Bright countered, "I think the convention center is not right for San Diego. It cut off [the view of] the bay. Why not ameliorate what we have here, which is the complete extinction of the bay, and have this, which is a damn sight better than this building."

Sharon Carr of the Port Tenants' Association asked about the selection process: "There's a lot of good San Diego artists here who have local knowledge, so why don't we have local [artists for this project] that San Diegans can appreciate?"

Glen Craig, a local sculptor, said, "I don't feel slighted in the least by someone from L.A. or anywhere else. I could never attempt to do anything like this, this is just amazing. What [Rubins] does is take the boats and . . . they become—they're not boats anymore. They're something else: They're dynamic, they're floating, they're fantasy, they're amazing."

Gaslamp restaurateur Lesley Cohn remarked, "I don't think many people knew about this. If there was a public outreach, they didn't reach out very far. This [artwork] has nothing to do with the Gaslamp."

One read and heard ardent wishes to identify or name the sculpture. Had the untitled assemblage a referent in nature, had it resembled a time-tested artwork elsewhere, the piece might sail through. But as metaphor, it was easy for naysayers to disparage it. The U-T letters led the epithet parade: "the ultimate Swiss army knife" and "boats piled up . . . like driftwood." At one session an upset woman spit out, "It looks like they're all crashed together, a hurricane." Others labeled it "a bunch of feathers caught in a fan" and "a gruesome monstrosity."

Some contend that San Diego's public art legacy (witness the steel spire by Ellsworth Kelly designed for the a tourist attraction in Barcelona) is so provincial and bland that those who want challenging art are incapable of ending the bias against it. For me that's an over-beaten dead horse. What's operating here is much more insidious—the province of newspeak.

First is the careless editorializing by some members of the media. The U-T dismissed the project with an erroneous claim that "just about everybody who saw it" disliked it. A lie. Next came the TV viewer polls on the heels of the anchor's and reporter's opinions. "Is it art or just plain ugly?" Such an idiotic question poisons viewers' responses by implying that art can only be pretty. The last KFMB-TV poll, shown at 11:20 p.m. the night before the vote, was: Yes, 10 percent; No, 85 percent; Not Sure, 5 percent. But how many responded? 50? 500? And where was a statement, at the website or on air, that their poll reflected those who had been directed to vote because of News 8's coverage?

The most abusive practice, though, was to throw out the selection process by adding personal preference into one's judgment and then denying that one's preference had been used. Prior to the board's discussion, Roper said, "I think our job is to vote on the art being erected and whether it's appropriate for . . . the location it's in. I think that's our job. I don't think our job is to vote our personal favor or disfavor." Hadn't the oversight committee determined it was appropriate by unanimously voting for it? Why, then, did Roper need to reject personal favoritism? Unless, of course, he was about to use it in his vote.

Cushman remarked that he couldn't fault the "excellent process" all agreed to. Then he faulted it by asking the oversight committee to come up with more options. "What do we [port commissioners] know about art?" he said to a woman angered by his motion after the vote. "We know nothing. This [Rubins's piece] was just a different statement." Which, translated, sounds as though he had no problem disapproving of art that he knew nothing about.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Mayor Golding asked the convention center board to reconsider the issue, calling their decision "an embarrassment to San Diego." Is this more double-talk? Is it not over? Stay tuned, but be careful what you read and hear.