The slated removal of I-80 bridge sculptures proves to be polarizing issue

One of the two Berkeley Big People sculptures that are slated to removed from the I-80 pedestrian bridge. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

One hundred and eighty-three story comments, 3,974 engagements and 151 comments on Facebook, 2,373 reaches on Instagram and countless tweets.

There are certainly more pressing issues in our community, but something about the most expensive piece of public art ever commissioned by the city of Berkeley and the fact that it is set to disappear got Berkeleyside readers mighty riled up.

On Aug. 14 we published the exclusive story that Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission had voted to “deaccession” the two sculptures by Emeryville artist and city council member Scott Donahue that sit at either end of the pedestrian bridge over I-80 near Aquatic Park. Called Berkeley Big People, they were installed 11 years ago after a five-year period of public scrutiny, at a total cost of $196,000. The commission cites as its reason the financial burden of maintaining the artworks, one of which depicts Berkeley’s history of protest and the other of various recreation pursuits at the nearby shoreline. Donahue himself is dismayed with the decision.

The community response demonstrated just how polarizing the sculptures are.


People were not reticent in expressing their views (we are not counting up the results of our reader poll as it turned out the platform we used allowed people to vote more than once). Among the many comments on the original story, many readers said they couldn’t wait for the removal of the artworks.

“Sound walk back from the commission. Not a penny should be spent to rehab this particular work, which has the charm and nuance of a piano falling on one’s head,” wrote lodule16.

“What terrific news, wrote Douglas Smith. “These ugly things have insulted passers-by for too long. Leave the elegant bridge alone, it’s artful enough by itself.

In contrast, Laura Paull wrote on Facebook: “I love those sculptures! To me, they are the essence of Berkeley — its history, as your article points out. The commission’s decision to remove them without public consultation is an outrage.”

Paula Aiello is also a fan. “I LOVE those sculptures,” she commented. “What a shame that Berkeley has changed so much that removing them even became a consideration. This makes me VERY sad.”

Many questioned how the city commission could have spent so long debating the merits of the sculptures in the first place but fail to factor in maintenance costs, and then opt to remove them only 11 years later.

“The real question here is why the Public Arts Commission should be involved at all in any future decisions and process pertaining to the acquisition of public art in the City,” commented loveBerkeley. “It’s disgusting and laughable that they made the original decision to purchase this $200,000 piece of “art,” which is of poor quality across most dimensions, and are still leading the process of replacing it.”

Some suggested that the artworks be removed but that either a new home be found for them or they be recycled.

Others pointed out that large, intricate sculptures on a bridge over a highway could be a distraction for drivers — although if they slowed traffic down that could be seen to be a good thing.

In the end, perhaps such a lively conversation about this subject only goes to show Berkeley hasn’t lost its mojo. As kkunze put it: “These sculptures are one of the first things I noticed about Berkeley when I moved here about a half-decade ago. They remind me of Berkeley’s long history of protest. It’s ironic that now that artists are trying to protest the protest sculpture.”