Design by Lily Therens; elements by Shutterstock

Design by Lily Therens; elements by Shutterstock

The Auctioneer Advocate

Jeff Koons brings something local artists can’t — yet

Back Commentary Mar 9, 2015 By David Sobon

This is the first piece in a 3-part series. Part two, “The Artist on the Fence,” can be found here. Part three, “The Story Behind the Solitary ‘No’ Vote,” can be found here.

Can you believe it? People are talking about art again. Not since Sacramento’s own David Garibaldi was on “America’s Got Talent” has our community talked at about art at the water cooler.

Back in the 1970s, the city’s first commissioned public art piece was installed: Gerald Walberg’s Indio Arch, between the Holiday Inn and a city parking garage. It was very controversial.

Indio Arch(photo courtesy of Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission)

Indio Arch (photo courtesy of Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission)

People called it phallic, Islamic and decried it would further endanger the U.S. hostages in Iran. Since then, it has increased in value many times over its original price and much of the community has grown to love it. Look at Lawrence Argent’s “Leap,” the enormous red rabbit sculpture in the airport commissioned by Sacramento County. It stirred serious emotion around town when first proposed. I now wear a T-shirt with that image when I travel. It is been recognized all around the country, and it is quite a conversation starter.

Now we have Jeff Koons.

The mere mention of his name stirs controversy, and that’s great. Art should inspire debate and discussion. Monet and Van Gogh received death threats and, along with Picasso and Chagall, were ridiculed for their work. Millions of Parisians petitioned and protested the Eiffel Tower, the most absurd concern being that birds may perish from flying into it. (French birds are not quite that dumb.)

Koons is a master. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith credited Koons’ work with rewarding and encouraging “heightened visual awareness,” and his pieces regularly break auction records for their hefty price tags. Koons is a true celebrity artist whose presence will up the status of Sacramento as a must-see art region. That, in turn, brings money for restaurants, shopping, museums and art galleries. And yes, money to buy local art. Whether you like his proposed piece or not, one thing is undeniable: People will come to see it.

Honestly, I’m still on the fence about whether or not I like the Koons piece, but that’s irrelevant. What I am passionate about is this debate – one that can be a catalyst for inspiring local artists and raising Sacramento’s profile as a city that embraces artistic diversity. However, big ideas and big ambitions come with a price. And make no mistake, Jeff Koons’s piece is expensive.

- Over $9.5 million will be spent on art in the next two years at the ESC.

- $5.5 million of that came from a city ordinance requiring 2% of construction costs be set aside for public art.

- The Kings will contribute half of the $5.5 million, with the remainder coming from the city.

- Four local philanthropists donated an additional $1 million

- Marcy Friedman, one of the four donors, restricted her donation of $1 million to the purchase of work by  local artists.

More than $9.5 million will be spent on art in the next two years at the new downtown complex, and $1.5 million of that will be allocated to local artists. This is the best of both worlds: an opportunity to develop and promote the local art scene, which is so important to our region, and to own a world-class piece. I’ll admit that $7.5 million is a lot of money for one celebrity piece. But does Sacramento have an artist of that magnitude, one who can attract visitors from all over the world like Koons can? The two most expensive public art pieces in the city of Sacramento since 1984 are Davis artist Stephen Kaltenbach’s “Time To Castaway Stones” commissioned in 1999 for the Esquire Plaza at $391,000, and Granite Bay artist Michael Riegel’s untitled work commissioned in 1988 for the Hyatt hotel at $250,000.

Making art for a living is hard work. Making art in the public realm can be even harder, and it takes experience. It is different from making art in a studio for exhibition in a gallery or museum. It is difficult, complicated and expensive. Artists need to know how to work with larger budgets, manage contractors, and navigate a public process. Ask anyone who has completed a major work of public art and they will tell you.

Do we have local artists blowing up the art world’s mainstage? Not yet. That takes a lot of money, talent, hard work and frankly, luck. Spending that $1.5 million locally is going to be a lot harder than you might think. In my own poll of gallery owners, artists, curators, donors and collectors, we had a difficult time spending that much money locally with proven artists that produce public art.

There are many dedicated and gifted artists in this region. My hope is that local talent produces a piece so relevant that it become the topic of conversation, and that visitors from around the world flock to see their work. The commitment from the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, the city, the developers and philanthropists has shown us how far we have come in Sacramento.


What do you think of the Koons piece? Let us know in the comments. We’ll feature a round-up of community opinion in our April issue. 


Visitor (not verified)March 9, 2015 - 10:27am

I highly doubt anyone is going to make a special trip to Sacramento to look at a public art sculpture at the entrance to an arena. That's quite the assumption on your part.

Chris Worden (not verified)March 9, 2015 - 1:11pm

With all do respect to Visitor, nobody goes to any city - including Paris - to see just one thing (though I have no doubt that a lot of people driving through Sac will stop to "see what the fuss is all about"). The proper question is whether Koons work will move the needle in a larger calculus. Will Coloring Book make it more likely somebody will visit when considered with affordable hospitality options, a state capitol, a farm-2-fork capitol, a burgeoning craft brew scene, great parks and trails, and all the other things we love about Sacramento right now plus all the things we'll add in the near future, like a new Powerhouse Science Center, a new arena, developed riverfront, and an MLS team. The answer is, without dispute, yes. You can hate human nature, but people WILL come see novelty, and a guy who sells a balloon dog for $58 million is novel. I'm so sure of this, that if there aren't 10,000 selfies with Coloring Book going out nationwide through social media out of Sacramento in the first week this exhibit opens, I'll give you $20.

Tim Foster (not verified)March 9, 2015 - 2:06pm

I often travel to see art - and almost always make a point of checking out public sculpture in regions I'm visiting. Sobon makes many valid points, and I absolutely agree that Sacramento's art community will benefit from the association with Koons' work. Our artists already see, and are shown alongside, other area artists' work - the chance to have their work displayed alongside the work one of the world's foremost living artists is a huge opportunity. I hope we are able to take advantage of it.

Visitor (not verified)March 9, 2015 - 5:15pm

Over the centuries, even the "masters" had paintings and sculptures that "bombed." From what I can see of this splash of color, it is a "bomb." I have faith in our local artists /sculptors to do better. A former midtown resident/sculptor sold his works nationwide--known throughout the country except in Sacramento. He retired to the Bay area, his sales in other states having left him very well off.

Nels (not verified)March 9, 2015 - 6:07pm

Do we have local artists blowing up the art world stage, you ask?

They have to leave Sacramento to do that, sad but very true.

Genise Hood Plessas (not verified)March 9, 2015 - 6:25pm

The discussion is awesome and like the proposed piece or not, it will be something to draw people downtown to take a peek. It must be emphasized that every local artist will benefit from the discussion over the cost of art, as well as, art itself. I am hopeful that this art piece will inspire all of us to be more aware of the impact and importance of art in public places. As an artist, it is difficult to create, produce and market my own pieces because of the expense and profit/loss on it, once it is up for sale. And, that is just looking at it in terms of dollars and cents. The emotional expense can be overwhelming because it such a personal expression. Society as a whole does not have much sensitivity to either aspects.

Patrick (not verified)March 9, 2015 - 6:51pm

This is a really exciting development for the city. I do believe that people will come to see this work - and that they'll then view the nearby works of local artists. Beyond that, the piece looks great. I work downtown and I'm already looking forward to being able to walk to see it over lunch breaks.

Peter Diepenbrock (not verified)March 10, 2015 - 5:17am

Dear Sacramento,
I have just read this article with great amusement. I was born downtown, raised in the suburbs along the American River, graduating from The Sacramento Waldorf School. Our family has deep and active roots in the community going back several generations. I read this now, from the shores of Rhode Island: my adopted state. As a full time practicing public artist, this discussion is music to my ears. Koons is an international art star, with all the trappings, recognition, and fees that go along with such an accomplished carreer. Pride of place is what stands at the center of this discussion: what symbolizes it, what defines it, and what inspires it. Developing a public art piece requires a kind of intellectual divining rod, where one taps into a form that expresses the ethos of a region, and celebrates appropriately the site in which the form is placed. If a sculptural installation is truly successful, it will validate the site, the context, and the community for generations. As a transplanted Sacramentan, I would love to toss my hat in the ring as a LOCAL. Check out:
Be well and prosper Sacramento!