The ‘Chain Reaction’ sculpture in the Civic Center has been granted landmark status by the Landmarks Commission.

CIVIC CENTER — Attorneys that have taken up the cause of a controversial statue at the Civic Center are disputing official claims that the piece is unsafe and say that City Hall did nothing to maintain the artwork for the last 20 years.

“Chain Reaction,” a 26-foot-tall statue shaped like a mushroom cloud made by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad, has been at risk of being removed from its spot in the Civic Center since a building and safety official saw children climbing on it and asked for a review of its integrity.

The City Council gave activists, including Conrad’s son Dave, six months to raise the money necessary to save the piece, which staff estimated between $227,372 and $423,172.

In a letter dated Aug. 28, attorney Kenneth Kutcher of Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal stated that a perusal of documents associated with the piece showed only speculation that the artwork was in such bad repair to be considered dangerous, and that there was no evidence that City Hall had done anything to maintain the statue in the last two decades.

He also noted that the amount proposed by staff to save the piece included testing costs and up to $80,000 for future landscaping.

It’s the first communication between City Hall and the firm that’s been made public since it took the job pro bono at the beginning of August, roughly three months before activists who support the statue and the deceased artist’s family must appear before City Council to plead their case.

“(O)ur client simply wants to ensure that the sculpture remains in place as the public art that was committed to the city for installation 21 years ago,” Kutcher wrote in an e-mail.

According to the memo, art conservators, a structural engineer and a materials testing company hired by City Hall to test the sculpture have not managed to show that the sculpture was damaged enough to constitute a danger.

Tests of the fiberglass that forms the interior of the structure were inconclusive, according to previous staff reports, but in the memo, Kutcher emphasized the fact that laboratory tests showed no cause for immediate concern.

Steve Colton, an art conservator brought on by Dave Conrad, stated that the “inconclusive” result on the fiberglass meant only that the substance didn’t meet either “pass” or “fail” requirements.

“Considering that the materials have 20 years of exposure, the results of the test to date appear to tend toward a positive rather than a negative result,” he wrote.

Kutcher also pointed to an agreement between City Hall and Paul Conrad in which officials at the time committed to provide repairs of the work “necessitated by wear and tear.”

However, just a few lines down, the document also exempts City Hall from responsibility for “normal wear and tear or omissions of others.”

Just how much the “wear and tear” of the last 20 years exposed to the elements would cost is also at issue.

In the letter, Kutcher says that the cost of the repairs are “overstated,” with between $111,372 and $158,172 tied up in testing, landscaping and “contingency” costs.

“The cost of conservation is estimated to be $52,000 (to) $65,000,” Kutcher wrote. “So the cost of repair and conservation could actually be as low as $120,000 using the city’s estimates.”

City officials acknowledged that they had received the letter, and are still evaluating it.

Kutcher’s involvement and the recent designation of the piece as a recognized landmark have given Dave Conrad new confidence that the piece not only can be saved, but should be.

Dave Conrad has been working to save the piece with local activist Jerry Rubin, but worried that he was tilting at windmills.

“I’ve always questioned it. Being the son of the artist, are my views skewed? Does this have value?” he asked. “To have the Landmarks Commission back up that position and lawyers take on the case gives me justification.”

 

ashley@smdp.com