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The 'Chain Reaction' sculpture in the Civic Center has been granted landmark status by the Landmarks Commission. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — The Landmarks Commission cemented the importance of “Chain Reaction” to Santa Monica’s identity Monday night with a unanimous vote to landmark the famous, but structurally-compromised statue.

Commissioners found that the 26-foot statue depicting a mushroom cloud made out of thick chain links qualified for landmark status under five of the six possible criteria which consider the placement, historic significance and creator of the work, as well as its aesthetics.

The only exception was the fourth point that deals with architectural significance, which the piece of public art could not satisfy.

The decision went against the recommendation put forward by city officials and simultaneously broke new ground as the first piece of landmarked public art in Santa Monica.

“Chain Reaction” was created by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad. While Conrad was better known for his acerbic wit and unforgiving pen, he also made multiple sculptures during his lifetime.

“Chain Reaction” is the largest of those sculptures, weighing in at almost 5 tons. It was installed in Santa Monica in 1990 after a 4-3 vote by the City Council.

Twenty years later, the statue has fallen into disrepair. City building officials fear that the thin point at the neck of the piece just under the mushroom cloud might be too weak to hold, and called the strength of the fiberglass that forms the interior structure into question.

Repairs could cost between $220,000 and $420,000, officials say, which exceeds the entire budget to maintain Santa Monica’s public art collection.

Despite testing that has been done over the past several months, no one has been able to whittle that number down.

If the piece is not repaired, it will have to be given to a museum or other entity that can care for it. If a new home can’t be found, the statue will be destroyed.

In Monday’s staff report, officials told commissioners that while the statue’s title and appearance made a clear statement regarding peace and nuclear politics, its place in the Santa Monica public’s heart was less decisive.

“Unlike the Santa Monica Pier sign, there was no citywide acceptance of this piece,” said Scott Albright, a planner at City Hall. “… The city was divided as to whether to accept the artwork, and is divided as to whether the piece should remain.”

Commissioners rejected the notion that they should deny the application based on the work’s popularity or the cost it would take to repair it.

Instead, it was their task to determine whether or not the piece qualified under the six criteria laid out in Santa Monica’s landmarks ordinance.

“We’re not saving it through landmarking, necessarily,” said Commissioner Barbara Kaplan. “We’re acknowledging and giving it the respect it deserves.”

In fact, landmarking won’t save “Chain Reaction,” at least not directly.

If community members can’t raise enough money to make the required repairs, it will be cut from the Santa Monica public art rolls, landmarked or not.

The City Council and Arts Commission have indicated in previous votes that those supporting the statue had until November to raise the necessary funds or they would have to let the piece go.

The Landmarks Commission’s unanimous vote could do a lot to bolster those fundraising goals, said Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager for City Hall.

“It’s a resounding endorsement of [its] significance and worth in the community,” Cusick said.

Local activist and proclaimed City Council candidate Jerry Rubin, along with the Conrad family, has spearheaded efforts to raise money to make the needed repairs and preserve the statue in place, going so far as to chain himself to the fence surrounding the piece for a photo shoot.

So far the group has raised roughly $2,500.

They hope that the new designation will convince major donors that their cause is worthy, Conrad said.

“To me, when we go forward to raise funds, this says it’s here to stay, that they give it the respect that it’s due,” Conrad said.

ashley@smdp.com

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