CITY HALL — The City Council voted Tuesday to extend a lifeline on a controversial sculpture for one year to allow activists time to raise money to save the piece, which is showing signs of wear and tear.
After that, council members warned, they will pull the cord and cut ties with the sculpture, which has absorbed $61,000 of public funds in the last year.
In a 6 to 1 vote, with Councilmember Bob Holbrook against, the council agreed to use an additional $20,000 to shore up “Chain Reaction,” a 26-foot tall, mushroom cloud-shaped statue designed by Pulitzer Prize-winner cartoonist Paul Conrad, while a team of volunteers, including the artist’s son, Dave Conrad, finds the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to fully repair the work.
The council also added $50,000 as a carrot to help volunteers raise funds for the piece. The money will be contingent on their fundraising, and can be used as leverage in negotiations with art foundations or other potential donors.
They have until Feb. 1, 2014 to get the money together. After that, City Hall will pull its support.
Officials have been resistant to using limited public art funds to repair the piece, which some believe has sustained extensive damage as a result of exposure to the elements over the last 20 years. Some estimates have put the cost as high as $555,000.
A lower figure, by conservator Steve Colton, was only $85,000.
Although several council members expressed reservation at supporting the piece, particularly Holbrook, Councilmember Gleam Davis said that even limited government support was needed to give activists a shot at saving “Chain Reaction.”
“I think we have to make some affirmation to the world at large, the grant writers, the Conrad family and the community supporting this that the city is willing to make some investment here,” Davis said. “Without that, I think we’re setting them up to fail, quite honestly.”
Supporters are hopeful now that they have the weight of City Hall behind them in their quest for funds, Conrad said.
“City support makes all the difference in the world,” Conrad said. “It’s what we wanted all along.”
“All along,” as Conrad puts it, has been almost a year-long process since the Arts Commission first voted to recommend that the City Council remove the piece from the public artwork portfolio on Feb. 1, 2012.
The City Council ultimately gave the team, led by Conrad and peace activist Jerry Rubin, six months to raise the funds needed to repair “Chain Reaction,” although complete estimates on the cost of repairs and extent of the damage did not arrive until September, just two months before the Nov. 15 deadline.
In an effort to protect the statue, Conrad and Rubin went to the Landmarks Commission and won landmark status for the piece, making it the first landmarked artwork in Santa Monica.
That further complicates getting rid of “Chain Reaction,” because City Hall will have to go through a potentially-costly environmental review process first, and return to the Landmarks Commission.
“Chain Reaction” has always been a controversial piece, winning its spot on the Civic Center lawn in the early 1990s only through a 4 to 3 vote of the City Council.
While disagreement on the value of a given piece of art can be good, this one will rob other artists of much-needed funds, said Elena Allen, former chair of the Arts Commission.
“‘Chain Reaction,’ in its derivativeness, is not the work of Michelangelo or Rodin,” Allen said. “It is by a famous cartoonist, though an indifferent and late-blooming sculptor, and it is apparently a safety hazard.”
Proponents believe that City Hall has a responsibility to maintain the statue, which was anonymously donated almost two decades ago. They consider it a symbol of peace and the anti-nuclear movement.
Councilmember Kevin McKeown attempted to stop that line of argument in its tracks.
“We are voting on a sculpture, we are not voting on world peace,” he said.
As a result of the vote, “Chain Reaction” supporters have one year to raise the money they need to repair the sculpture to the satisfaction of Santa Monica building officials.
If they can’t make that happen within a year, it’s over.
That’s a reasonable assignment, said Abby Arnold, a well-known grant writer who is lending her services to the project.
“We’ll do it,” she said.