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People love Bill Walton, but not everyone loves the bronze Bill Walton statue.

A group of San Diegans led by philanthropists Pat and Stephanie Kilkenny wanted to honor the Hall of Fame basketball player and philanthropist who’s oft seen riding his bike around town. They paid Oregon sculptor Alison Brown $200,000 to create a bronze statue of him.

The plan was to move the piece around San Diego before finding it a permanent home. It’s been at Petco Park the last few months and in early October it’ll head to Valley View Casino Center for three months.

The group eyed the San Diego International Airport as a final home, where millions of San Diegans and travelers would see it. They explained its meaning and intent and offered to donate it to the airport.

Airport officials said thanks but no thanks, and sent the group a letter explaining the decision.

Union-Tribune sports columnist Bryce Miller and a Deadspin columnist blasted the airport for its decision.

“Get over yourself,” Miller wrote. “Quit over-thinking this. Take the statue before the generous people behind it change their minds.”

Thella Bowens, president and CEO of the San Diego County Regional Airport, listed five reasons the airport doesn’t want the bronze, but when Miller called for further explanation, she directed him to public relations department, which asked him to submit questions in writing.

That miffed Miller, and left all sorts of questions unanswered.

Bowens’ reasons, though, were actually pretty good – if a bit terse and hard to grasp for those outside the noble art world.

For one, the airport’s art advisory committee, which reviewed and rejected the proposal, said the statue didn’t fit the airport’s public art collection, which is “focused on commissioning original artworks that are seamlessly integrated into the airport environment.”

Over the last decade, the airport has gotten super serious about its art. In 2006, it adopted an ambitious arts master plan and set out to host top-notch temporary, permanent and performing arts programming. It has garnered international attention and acclaim.

The airport sets aside 2 percent of the cost of certain construction projects, which it uses to pay local and international artists for new work. For permanent pieces, artists work closely with construction managers and architects on pieces that respond directly to the airport, often in fun and witty ways.

In Terminal 2, for instance, it’s hard not to notice the light sculpture hanging from the ceiling featuring images of people swimming and dancing overhead. And mounted over one of the baggage claim areas, there’s a piece of interactive art that light ups as people walk beneath it. There are dozens more examples of art tailor-made for the airport.

Photo by Kinsee Morlan
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

A large bronze sculpture of a man raising his arms behind a bicycle doesn’t quite blend into the crevices of the airport’s infrastructure in the same way.

“The piece just doesn’t work with what they’re doing with art at the airport,” said art critic and educator Robert L. Pincus. “And you can’t just add work to the collection willy-nilly just because someone gifted it to you. … The work in the airport blends with the environment and gives you a feeling that there’s a reason for it to be there, whereas putting the Walton piece there – what rhyme or logic is there? Isn’t he standing behind a bike?”

Putting art in places where it doesn’t relate to its surroundings is done often. People call it “plop art,” a term intended to be as derogatory as it sounds.

In her rejection letter, Bowens noted concerns about installation and maintenance costs, something Miller poked fun at since the sculpture was installed at Petco Park in exchange for a few cases of beer and free dinners at a local steakhouse.

Airport spokesperson Rebecca Bloomfield said a lot that goes into installing artwork at the airport, including “hiring professional art handlers managing the transportation and installation of the artwork, a California-licensed engineer reviewing and stamping all installation details … insurance and liability coverage and maintenance of the artwork as needed.”

The airport was also concerned that it was unfair to accept a statue in the likeness of one person, when plenty of San Diegans have accomplishments worth immortalizing in bronze.

“I definitely agree with that one,” said Constance White, an arts consultant who used to head the airport’s arts program. “It’s almost like once you accept one commemorative sculpture it opens Pandora’s box and you have to accept them all or be accused of discriminating or playing favorites.”

White said while she was at the airport, one man wanted to donate his personal Navy knot boards – a collection of ropes tied into various types of knots and mounted on wood. Another man insisted his collection of Oscar Meyer memorabilia should be on display at the airport.

“He was really passionate about hot dogs and he wrote a letter to every member of the board about why it was a great idea,” White said.

The airport’s strict donation policy, she said, has protected the integrity of its art collection.

The Walton bronze isn’t as much of a misfit for the airport as a Navy knot board or hot-dog memorabilia, but not everyone’s convinced the sculpture is any good in the first place.

Pincus has only seen photos of the Walton bronze, but said he wasn’t impressed.

“It’s really not even a very good likeness, even if you want just a likeness,” he said. “I don’t think it cuts it – it just didn’t measure up. I looked at it and kind of said, ‘Huh?’”

Dan Shea, owner of Donovan’s Steak & Chop House and one of the community members behind the statue, said he thinks it is a fine depiction of a local icon whose contributions to San Diego deserve recognition.

“I could find another art critic that says it’s good,” he said. “Everyone has an opinion.”

Shea said the group’s been approached by multiple places that want the bronze, but they haven’t yet offered it to anyone but the airport.

The Hall of Champions, a sports museum in Balboa Park, has been brought up as an obvious option. Shea’s on the board there and said it’s being considered. But he said he was still looking for some more compelling reasons and explanations from the airport.

“I think they’re entitled to respond however they want,” he said. “But like most people I didn’t even know they had a philosophy guiding its art program. I’d ask them to open up that philosophy and let the public in on what they think.”

Kinsee Morlan

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture...

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