It’s likely to be one of the last projects for noted artist Robert Irwin, 83, and it’s right in downtown San Diego. The federal government commissioned Irwin to leave an imprint both inside and outside the new federal courthouse, now under construction.

“The idea being it’s our hometown, and why not get our best-known, most famous artist involved if he’s willing?” said Hugh Davies, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and a member of the government’s advisory panel for the project.

Irwin has lived in San Diego for a couple of decades. He started as a painter in the 1950s and is considered the godfather of the “Light and Space” movement, a type of conceptual art and installation that came of age and prominence in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s.

As our story explains, his piece for the inside of the courthouse has an intriguing back story. Decades ago, Irwin made a giant, 33-foot acrylic obelisk that was at one point in a shopping mall in Northridge. The piece requires a lot of sunlight to create the light-refracting prism effect it is supposed to have. The mall could never really make it sing even when it installed spotlights to try. So the mall’s owners donated the piece to Cal State Northridge, which kept it wrapped in a basement for years.

Finally, the piece is out of storage and restored. Irwin suggested the feds install it in the courthouse’s lobby, which will feature lots of sunlight.

Meanwhile, outside, Irwin’s been working with landscape architects Andy Spurlock and Marty Poirier on a zig-zagging hedge that will be central in the courthouse’s plaza.   

Washington, D.C.-based arts journalist and blogger Tyler Green featured a conversation with Irwin in a recent podcast, recorded at the site of Irwin’s current exhibition in New York City. Green asks the octogenarian artist why he still makes art and about what inspired him to make a familiar piece to museumgoers in San Diego — his “1° 2° 3° 4°” commissioned for the La Jolla campus of MCASD.

You’re reading the Arts Report, our weekly compilation of the region’s arts and culture news.

Color and History

• We had a blast with Donna Frye at Voice of San Diego’s first “One Voice at a Time” event last Wednesday. Frye crafted some collage pieces to weave her account of the June mayoral primary. She narrates the pieces’ context in this post.

• A production of “Rent” onstage now at the Birch North Park Theatre features the original actress, Gwen Stewart, for the character of Mrs. Jefferson, who sings the solo on the show’s hit “Seasons of Love” tune. (U-T San Diego)

• The outdoor festival stage for The Old Globe’s summer plays brings particular challenges for set designer Ralph Funicello, like timing visual effects for when the sun sets. (U-T)

• A reader’s guide to the future of Balboa Park: The plan to remake the traffic flow and parking in Balboa Park’s heart goes before City Council in July. Here’s an overview of the latest and what you should know. Read what your friends and neighbors are saying in our letters/commentary section and in comments.

• Ion Theatre promises to be fighting above its weight — it’s a “49-seat theater tucked into a Hillcrest strip mall” — in its upcoming season. In the competitive theater world, small operations try to beat out larger institutions for the privilege of performing a work first in a region or country. In its next season, the small theater will be presenting two plays that haven’t been done by any theater yet on the West Coast, and one world premiere. (U-T)

• Local artist and teacher Perry Vasquez has an eye on the intriguing nuances between artists trained in Mexico and Chicano artists working on this side of the border. (

“If you go to Chicano Park or to the Centro, you see these old-school murals and a lot of references to Aztec culture,” he said. “These artists have a cultural connection to their past. In Mexico, they are more international in their outlook, more conceptual, more abstract. Less likely to be looking that far back into history.”

• A fabulous house in Sherman Heights was originally built in 1887 to entice a renowned pianist, Jesse Shepard, to the neighborhood. Now the home is in disrepair, which frustrates Ann Jarmusch, who wrote about its folklore for the U-T.

“Shepard held concerts and séances in the ornate, Queen Anne-style house with mismatched towers, a turret and elaborate stained-glass windows portraying great artists such as Shakespeare, Beethoven and Mozart.”

• A new exhibition at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad outlines the history and footprint of the saxophone. (KPBS)

The Economics of Art

• The author of a recent study looking at the arts-related economy in cities around the country appeared on KPBS Midday today. San Diego’s arts had a bigger-than-average impact. Alison St. John asked Randy Cohen from Americans for the Arts what contributes to the local sector’s achievement.

Here’s Cohen:

”You know, you turn the clock back a couple decades and there was a real deliberate strategy to change the sand and surf image of San Diego into a community of culture and creativity. And I think they’ve been very effective at that.”

• Lux Art Institute in Encinitas is planning a $2.7 million expansion into the neighboring school on its property. (Encinitas Patch)

• A group of arts lovers in El Cajon presented a 60-page plan last Thursday on how the city can save its downtown theater instead of razing it to make room for a luxury hotel. (East County Magazine)

• I can’t not include a story with the headline “Raise the roof with symphony’s Summer Pops.” The U-T’s James Chute chats with the workers building the stage for the pops series at the Embarcadero.

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Kelly Bennett is the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach her directly at or 619.325.0531. Or you can keep up with her on Twitter @kellyrbennett or on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

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

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