Last July, the earth moved in the lot long designated for a new flagship library for the city of San Diego.

Even before all the money had been raised, local leaders beamed and celebrated. Starting construction against a backdrop of more than 30 years of skepticism and hurdles reenergized the argument that this library will yank San Diego’s reputation from the gutters of pedestrianism.

Among the chief pieces trusted with said yanking: the planned public art for the project, new sculptures and art pieces taking over entire walls and features of the library.

Like the surrounding library project it fits in, the art component brings its own hype, hurdles and complications. Local visual art connoisseurs say the chosen artists are some of the best, most innovative and renowned creative thinkers in the country, and the chance to hire them to make pieces for San Diego is thrilling.

But Mayor Jerry Sanders has proposed halting spending on public art while the city wrestles with massive budget cuts. He included the new central library in that proposal, though it’s supposed to be paid for with private donations, and is not the city’s money to divert anyway. But that private fundraising is still a big challenge; library boosters have less than a year to raise nearly $30 million.

And then there’s the process of commissioning the art itself, inviting proposals from hundreds of people and approving their plans, drawn up years ago.

Bureaucracy and artists aren’t the most harmonious match. But cities and airports and agencies often commission some of the biggest, most expensive pieces an artist will ever make, and put them in places of great prominence. The new central library’s public art process gives an interesting peek inside how a city can come to own art, and some of the challenges associated with including art in government projects.

It’s been almost a decade since artists signaled their interest in making a piece for San Diego’s library. Leaders asked the artists to study the plans for the new library and present ideas specifically oriented for it. Some of the pieces are integrated right into the construction of the building. One sculptor alluded to the iconic architecture of Balboa Park in his plan to build a tower from books. But even though the plans were dreamt up specifically for the library, a lot can change in the time it takes a government to figure out a plan, build a project and get the artist back to finish the job.

“Should I be incorporating this project in my estate planning?” joked one of the approved artists, Roy McMakin, discussing the lag last week.

Mary Beebe, the director of the public Stuart Collection at the University of California, San Diego, participated in choosing the artists. She hopes they’re still interested in doing the work.

“You never know. Sometimes they’ve moved on. It’s a huge question.”

Ideas on Paper

So what does the art look like?

Not much information has been public except the artists’ names. Dana Springs, the city’s public art program manager, heaved books and binders into a conference room downtown recently to give us a glimpse of the artwork and the process involved.

The city first advertised it was looking for artists to dream up artwork for the new central library in 2002. Hundreds of artists responded. A who’s-who of local art leaders whittled the pool down to finalists who came to San Diego and met with the architect. The city asked those artists to draft plans for artwork that would cost up to $1 million to make, and come back and present it.

Then the panel looked at all of the pieces proposed, and picked ones they liked from six artists, keeping the total budget for making and installing the art at $700,000. The artists were paid for their travel, time and plans. So far, $130,000 has been spent. The artists went back to their regular work, waiting for a green light to come back and actually build the pieces they proposed.

They’re still waiting for that green light.

“There are usually some hiccups, some hurdles in the process,” said Donald Lipski, a Philadelphia sculptor. “This is unusual for how long it’s gone on.”

Lipski’s piece takes thousands of books, opens them and attaches them, pages-out, to a wall of the auditorium in the library. A sculpture that wasn’t approved would’ve gone in a reading room for children, and would be a tower constructed to look like the iconic top of the Museum of Man in Balboa Park, made entirely from books.

Luckily for the library planners, Lipski still likes the wall encrusted with books he proposed so many years ago.

“From my point of view I’m still very excited about the piece,” he said.

Another chosen artist, McMakin, studied art at UCSD and has made public art projects in San Diego before. He often constructs furniture and gives it specific artistic goals and meanings. For the library, he proposed a project for taking cast-off or distinctive chairs, covering them in a particular shade of gray leather, and dispersing them throughout a reading room for adults.

McMakin’s plans are filled with drawings of chairs and sketches of the words “A” and “The.” Though the actual pieces are very concrete — chairs for library visitors to sit on — the panel embraced the concept behind why McMakin would make his specific chairs to place in the library. In a room filled with chairs that look the same, these dozen or more special chairs would stand out. Instead of going in and sitting in just any old chair — a chair — someone might return to one particular chair again and again — the chair.

But though McMakin said he’s still interested in the plan he proposed, the time that’s passed has surely affected it — from his thought processes to the costs of materials. But he hasn’t been pining for the project; he’s waiting for the official word to engage his imagination again in his plan.

“What do you do as it goes on? How do you tend for it as you change and as time changes?” McMakin said.

Brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre, who live and work in San Diego and in Ensenada, make ornate, colorful pieces often involving glass and found objects. They planned artwork to surround the main elevator in the front of the library, pieces that could be seen through the back glass wall of that elevator and a three-dimensional hanging piece.

And Gary Hill, based in Seattle, makes sound and video art. The panel selected his plan to make screensavers, animations and video pieces that would play on the library’s computer system.

Passing Time, Retaining Freshness

Even the word “screensaver,” used far less frequently today than it was in 2002, highlights the time that’s passed.

The panelists hope the pieces have aged well. Lipski said books have an even more romantic appeal to him as a medium than they did when he first imagined his pieces.

“It’s almost like as what a book is physically becomes less and less important in terms of utility — I read things all the time on my iPhone,” he said. “All of that in a sense makes a book, to me, all that more special.”

As soon as Springs gets a go-ahead from the people in charge of the library project, she’ll go to the artists to ask them what, if anything, needs to be adapted or changed from their approved plans so that their pieces will work a decade after they proposed them, she said.

Local sculptor Jeffery Laudenslager, who participated in choosing the artists and their plans, said retaining the freshness of the idea while bureaucracies sort out money and construction is one of the hardest parts of life in the public art realm.

“When there’s a very, very long shadow between the inception, the creative spark and the realization of that idea, it’s very daunting to keep your energy at a high-pitch level and deliver what you planned,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s the difficulty. Working with some of these municipalities, it’s antithesis to art.”

Art in Question

For a couple of reasons, it’s not simple in the library’s case to suspend the public art that’s planned as the mayor’s suggested. One, the money for the project is supposed to be private donations, not city money. Two, some of the pieces were designed to integrate inextricably into the architectural plans.

Lipski’s wall piece underscores that.

In the auditorium, the architects were excited that Lipski’s book wall would serve to deaden the sound, a desired effect for the acoustics of the room, Springs said. Without his piece, they’d have to come up with another solution to accomplish the same thing.

And though the fundraising is quite far from its goal, library boosters say that carving off the public art piece as the mayor has proposed isn’t an option.

“I just hope that enough money can be found to build them,” Beebe said. “To me they’re a really important part of the library. To turn people’s imaginations on.”

Correction: Due to a miscommunication between us and the city, an earlier version of this story said artist Donald Lipski had two pieces approved for inclusion in the library. In fact, though he proposed more pieces, only one piece was selected and approved. We regret the error.

I’m the arts editor for VOSD. You can contact me directly at or 619.325.0531 and follow me on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.