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A rendering of Isamu Noguchi’s “Octetra” at the Del Mar Civic Center. Courtesy photo
A rendering of Isamu Noguchi’s “Octetra” at the Del Mar Civic Center. Courtesy photo
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Del Mar scraps plans for permanent art sculpture

DEL MAR — City leaders recently took the controversial step of discontinuing a public art installation project at the Del Mar Civic Center before the public outreach process even began.

At its May 1 meeting, the Del Mar City Council was on track to kickstart a 60-day outreach period to gather public input on three sculpture options handpicked by the city’s Art Advisory Committee.

The process presented an opportunity for the city’s first permanent installation of an esteemed artwork at the Civic Center. The Del Mar Foundation and local art collector Marc Brutten committed to funding the acquisition and transportation, with Brutten also footing the cost of a consultant.  

However, some residents argued the modern pieces did not fit the Civic Center’s aesthetics and would block ocean views. The council majority of Councilmember Terry Gaasterland, Councilmember Dan Quirk and Mayor Tracy Martinez indicated the pieces were too divisive.

In a 3-2 vote, with Councilmember Dwight Worden and Councilmember Dave Druker dissenting, the council voted to halt the process and abandon the pursuit of any of the pieces. 

“I couldn’t vote for it to proceed because of the divisiveness it has created. I do tend to weigh more heavily on people that are absolutely opposed,” said Martinez. “It was a really sad day, because I know it was disappointing to the art committee and others who wanted this art.” 

A rendering of Isamu Noguchi’s “Play Sculpture” at the Del Mar Civic Center plaza. Courtesy photo
A rendering of Isamu Noguchi’s “Play Sculpture” at the Del Mar Civic Center plaza. Courtesy photo

The three abstract contemporary pieces included two sculptures by internationally celebrated artist Isamu Noguchi — “Octetra,” a pyramid of three bright-red geometric structures made from fiberglass and plastic, and “Play Sculpture,” a red circular piece made of curving steel tubes — and “Celeste,” an all-white spiraling steel piece by acclaimed sculptor Carol Bove.

The pieces ranged in price from $175,000 to $500,000.

Of the 45 public comments about the project emailed to the city for their May 1 meeting, the majority expressed excitement about the opportunity, particularly to have a Noguchi piece. Several urged the council not to pass up the chance in front of them. 

“It is extremely unlikely that Del Mar will ever have another opportunity to acquire — at no cost to the city — a work of art by someone like Isamu Noguchi, a world renowned and much admired artist,” wrote resident Dolores Jamison. 

Less than half of the written public comment emails opposed the sculptures, with some residents incorrectly claiming that the city would be footing the entire bill. 

“My personal view is that the consultant and the committee got it wrong. Futuristic modern design does not feel right at all for Del Mar,” wrote resident Karen Lare. 

Worden told his fellow council members that all art would draw criticism, and it made sense to continue in the process. 

“If we think we’re looking for a non-controversial piece of public art, we’re dreaming. There’s no such thing. If we’re gonna take these off the table because of controversy, I think that basically says we don’t want public art at the Civic Center,” said Worden.

However, Gaasterland, Martinez and Quirk argued that the results of the broader public outreach process would show the same level of divisiveness as the emails, saying it made no sense to invest more city staff time into something so many residents disliked.

“I would rather just rip the Band-Aid off and do it at this point rather than later,” Quirk said. 

An uncertain future 

Art Advisory Committee Chair Bonnie Grossman was dismayed by the decision to nix the public feedback process, stating that the committee had planned a town hall for May 11, an online survey and information tables to be set up at the library, city hall and the farmer’s market. 

“The whole purpose of this meeting was to talk about the process that we would go forward for public review,” she said. “Basically, they eliminated the possibility for most of the community to learn about it.” 

The role of the Art Advisory Committee is to vet public art proposals and guide the City Council on decisions related to public art, using its membership’s expertise in contemporary art to represent the local community’s interests.

Carol Bove's sculpture "Celeste" is another finalist for the Del Mar Civic Center's public art installation. Photo by Timothy Schenck
Carol Bove’s sculpture “Celeste” was a finalist for Del Mar’s public art installation. Photo by Timothy Schenck

Committee members chose “Celeste,” “Octetra” and “Play Sculpture” from a group of 18 pieces, narrowing down the option based on what would best fit the surrounding environment and comply with the city’s design standards.

Several committee and community members asked the city to trust the committee’s three sculpture selections, even if some were opposed.

“I am advising you that the art we’re presenting to you today will put Del Mar on the art map and enhance our city in multiple ways beyond your imagination,” said committee member and artist Karla Leopold. “I look to you, city council members, to advise me on issues that I’m not qualified to make. I hope, in turn, that you can look to the [committee] to make valid art-related decisions.” 

Under the city’s public art policy, the public comment period would have been followed by a Design Review Board discussion about the three pieces. Their feedback and input from residents would then be passed to the City Council to decide which piece to install.

Brutten said it was unfortunate that the council chose not to take what was essentially a public art donation. But, even more than that, he said the decision indicates a larger opposition to public art in the city. 

While the sculpture was described as permanent, it could have been moved if the council and residents felt that it truly did not fit the Civic Center after trying it for a year or two, Brutten said.

“Art, in general, is highly subjective. Whether it’s contemporary, Western, or modern, I think the decision has to be made by leaders to either give it a try and have an open mind or not. I think there will be no future for art in public spaces unless there is a more progressive leadership that decides that they will propound and agree to a facile process,” Brutten said. 

Brutten added that the galleries currently possessing the Noguchi pieces had essentially put them on hold for the city — something almost “unheard of” in the art world. 

For Worden, other things have also become uncertain — the city’s receptivity to even the temporary art program, set to enter a new phase this year, and the future of the city’s public art policy itself.

“I think the whole core mission for Del Mar’s public art program has a big question mark on it,” Worden said.

Del Mar Foundation President Hylton Lonstein said the foundation is still determining how this decision affects their art proposals moving forward.

“I really don’t know at this point. We’d need to know from the City what the process would be; and whether that process could be relied upon, or, as just happened, could it change on a whim after a significant investment of time and resources?” Lonstein said.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a quote from Hylton Lonstein, president of the Del Mar Foundation. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Marc Brutten owned the Civic Center land. We regret the error.