Public art projects are typically magnets for controversy, but a massive memorial to environmentalist David Brower that was promised last month to the City of Berkeley looks to be garnering more than its share.
The sculpture, a twenty-foot-high assemblage dubbed Spaceship Earth, is being offered by the family of Power Bar creator Brian Maxwell, who commissioned the piece before his unexpected death earlier this year. Maxwell's widow, Jennifer, recently approached Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates with the gift after it was politely rejected by the San Francisco Arts Commission on the grounds that, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, not only had little or nothing to do with the city but "was too big and did not represent Brower's ideals."
Berkeley certainly presents a more appropriate final destination for the orphan artwork. Brower, who died in 2000 at the age of 88, was a longtime Berkeley resident who served as executive director of the Sierra Club throughout the '50s and '60s. He later went on to found Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute and cofound the League of Conservation Voters.
The 350,000-pound memorial, constructed with some 1,500 bronze fittings from rare Brazilian quartzite, reportedly includes a full-figure likeness of Brower -- he looks to be sleepwalking -- in the act of scaling a highly stylized depiction of the globe. In announcing the offer, Mayor Tom Bates, who has been quoted as saying he thinks the piece is "really fabulous," has asked city engineers to examine the feasibility of installing it at the Berkeley Marina (it's apparently too large to be considered for the Oxford Street site). The sculpture's creator, the Finnish-American artist Eino, is known for a number of sculptural portraits of sports figures, including several on the UC Berkeley campus.
Local art experts who examined the available documentation are not so sure the sculpture is a good idea. Peter Selz, founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum, doesn't mince words. "We already have one obnoxious work on the waterfront," he complains, referring to a mysterious lump popularly known as The Guardian that currently graces the marina. "We do not need another ridiculous sculpture, this one of a man who appears to be slipping from a globe, that would do a great injustice to the memory of a great man. David Brower deserves something much better."
Berkeley Arts Commission member Bonnie Hughes says she believes Brower should indeed be remembered publicly, but instead by some kind of environmental artwork. Hughes, who admits she wasn't taken with the sculpture herself, is concerned about the policy implications of accepting public works that weren't specifically designed for their setting. "This goes to show that Berkeley needs to develop some kind of policy about people having sculptures made and then dumping them on us," she notes.
In the meantime, while the piece lies in, well, pieces in a warehouse at the Presidio in San Francisco, Mayor Bates has asked the Civic Arts Commission, the Waterfront Commission, and the city manager to take a closer look at the offer and to identify and analyze potential sites for the sculpture, then report back by October. -- Ken Coupland
It Beats a Chicken Coop
It's a song familiar to pretty much every small theater company in the East Bay. Where do we hang our hat ... and lights, and curtains? Oakland's TheatreFirst is no different. Since its inception in 1994, the company has been at the Julia Morgan, at 1000 Oaks Baptist Church, at the Oakland YWCA, at the Berkeley City Club, and at the Emeryville Borders. While the company can't beat Shotgun for odd venues -- no chicken coops or parking lots, for example -- TheatreFirst has gotten just as agile at working in whatever space was available.
Last season ended on a down note for the company when the Oakland YWCA announced that TheatreFirst was no longer welcome to rent space for performances. Artistic director Clive Chafer retrenched and started staging readings at the Jack London Square Barnes and Noble bookstore. Fortunately, he'd been keeping an eye on Mills College, which had just shut down its theater program: "That seemed pretty absurd for a liberal arts college with a theater on campus to not have a theater program." So Chafer approached the Mills administration with a proposal: make TheatreFirst artist in residence. Mills -- and the technical theater majors who were facing the prospect of having to switch schools to finish their degrees -- liked the idea.
It's win-win for everyone. While TheatreFirst will use professional actors, it also will make internships available to students. Audiences will get to see the company's thought-provoking work on one of two stages: a traditional proscenium theater seating 185 or a sixty-seat studio theater. Mills puts itself back on the map as a professional theater venue. And finally Chafer, who hails from England, gets to fulfill his dream of "contributing something to the cultural life of the city where I've lived since 1986."
Although the equipment is old and the stage rather more formal than Chafer prefers, he's very pleased by the new surroundings. "Mills College is a darn nice place to come to," he enthuses. "It's a green oasis in South Oakland. You come on campus and your lungs expand another inch." Hopefully this project will give TheatreFirst audiences (and receipts) a chance to expand as well. -- Lisa Drostova
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