Three gleaming figures balance precariously on top of silver cubes, engaged in a motionless dance. Playful yet proud, they welcome visitors to the north end of San Luis Obispo with outstretched arms.
The stainless steel figures are the focal point of “Bequest,” the latest piece to join San Luis Obispo’s ever-growing collection of public art. It was installed Feb. 17 at the intersection of Buena Vista Avenue and Monterey Street.
“We’re one of the leaders definitely in the county, even in the state,” said Shannon Bates, San Luis Obispo’s public art coordinator and recreation manager.
The city is home to 34 pieces of public art, ranging from murals and stained glass windows to towering bronze and steel sculptures. A mix of donated and commissioned pieces, they draw inspiration from sources as varied as Chinese railroad workers, Chumash pictographs and native plants and wildlife.
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“We have a really good combination of different materials and approaches,” Bates said.
“Bequest” continues a public art legacy dating to John Augsburger’s “Tankhead Fish,” donated in 1977.
“The goal for most artists is to do monumental sculpture,” said Santa Barbara artist Brian Chessmar, who created “Bequest.”
As the name implies, the stainless steel sculpture triptych is intended as a gift for generations to come. It represents balance, growth and diversity, Chessmar said.
“My work is all about balance. It really pushes the physical image of steel,” he said, noting that the largest figure stands 15 feet tall and weighs about 1,400 pounds.
“Bequest” was purchased for $88,000, putting it among the city’s most valuable pieces. The priciest, Elizabeth McQueen’s “Ironroad Pioneers,” was valued at $110,000 when it was donated in 2002.
So how does San Luis Obispo pay for public art?
Under the Visual Arts in Public Places program, instituted in 1990, the city sets aside 1 percent of all capital improvement costs for public art. San Luis Obispo added an ordinance in 2000 requiring large-scale private developers to reserve half a percent of construction costs for art.
“Every two years when we do the budget, we look at what money is available and designate a portion for public art,” said Betsy Kiser, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department. Jurors then identify possible sites and select themes such as transportation or recreation.
Many of the city’s artworks stem from the economic boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. “We’re still spending money from ’06 or ’07,” Bates explained.
Elsewhere in the county, the approach to public art differs.
“Public art is still a relatively new thing for Paso Robles,” said Ann Robb, the city’s director of library and recreation services.
Like San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles passed an ordinance reserving 1 percent of municipal construction costs for public art.
“Unfortunately, that ordinance came into play right as our public buildings were complete, so there’s no money in there,” Robb said.
In Atascadero and Arroyo Grande, officials said, public art is encouraged but not required.
Although Atascadero doesn’t have a budget specifically allocated for art, Community Development Director Warren Frace said the city is paying $250,000 to restore “Wrestling Bacchantes,” the marble nymphs that once graced the Sunken Gardens.
In San Luis Obispo, public art works are selected by a seven-member jury.
Traditionally, the city has sought artists using the request- for-proposal system. Artists are asked to design works following certain parameters regarding size, location and budget. Jurors then select their favorite candidates.
San Luis Obispo recently instituted a new system that requests qualifications from artists before they’re asked to submit proposals.
Organizers have also widened the field of candidates, once limited to San Luis Obispo County residents, to include artists from as far away as the East Coast and Europe.
“With larger projects, our thinking has been, ‘If it’s a local artist, great, but we want to get the best art we can get for that amount of money,’” Bates said.
According to Bates, winning pieces have at least one factor in common: “There tends to be a lot of focus on what you can tie to a certain history or a certain culture.”
Jim Jacobson’s “Flames of Knowledge,” in front of the city Parks and Recreation Department, uses playful shapes and primary colors that recall the turn-of-the century Emerson School that stood there until 1982.
Jacobson’s three kinetic sculptures along the San Luis Obispo Creekwalk — “Sycamore & Budding Thistle,” “Fish Life” and “Chumash Pictographs” — reference the region’s natural history. And his “Seven Sisters Railing,” which decorates the Santa Rosa Street Bridge, draws its inspiration from the surrounding peaks and the nearby Kundert Medical Clinic designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
“(The railing) educates tourists about the importance we put on our natural heritage and the beauty that surrounds us,” the San Luis Obispo sculptor said.
According to Bates and Kiser, the city’s place-conscious approach is considered “safe” by some.
“We sometimes get criticized that the art is too predictable,” Bates said.
Even so, public art has stirred up its share of controversy in the county.
Kate Britton’s “Garnet,” a bronze cast sculpture inspired by a friend’s battle with breast cancer, polarized Arroyo Grande residents during its six-month sojourn there. The curvy statue was donated to San Luis Obispo in 2002 and moved near West End Espresso & Tea at Nipomo and Higuera streets.
More controversy was courted in 2001 when Copeland Properties stashed Allen Root’s Art Deco benches in storage to make way for the Court Street shopping mall. The benches, collectively called “Community’s Bridge,” found a permanent home in Mitchell Park in 2006.
And then there’s the case of Elizabeth McQueen’s “Puck.”
The sculptor originally loaned her statue to the city while she was searching for a buyer, only to take him back in 2002. Eight months later, seven families raised $75,000 — and San Luis Obispo contributed $10,000 — to return “Puck” to his perch at the Downtown Centre mall.
“That’s what’s fun about public art,” Kiser said. “It’s always controversial because it’s always in the public eye. And not everybody has the same opinion of art.”
Still, she said, community support for art remains strong.
“Bequest” will be dedicated sometime between now and mid-April, Bates said.
Another piece, a larger-than- life bronze statue of a Native American standing on a boulder, is set to be installed in the next three to six months.
Created by Nell Scruggs and donated by her family, “Oh Great Spirit” will stand at the corner of Prado and South Higuera streets. It was appraised at $90,000 in 2008.
Also in the works is a new fountain at the intersection of Higuera and Marsh streets.
“(Ours) is a great program,” Kiser said. “It just does so much for our town and our culture.”