City hits pause on removal of Berkeley Big People sculptures

A passerby takes a photo of one of the two Berkeley Big People sculptures on the pedestrian bridge over I-80 in Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Remember when Berkeley said in July it would remove the Berkeley Big People sculptures from its bicycle and pedestrian bridge because they were damaged and ongoing maintenance was too expensive?

Hold up.

At least for now.

The city is examining a Nov. 4 request from artist Scott Donahue, who made the sculptures, and his lawyer to delay their removal for six months while they work out some issues. While Berkeley has not officially responded to the letter, it appears willing to slow matters down, according to Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s economic development manager.


“Mr. Donahue’s attorney sent us a letter asking that the city wait six months before taking any action on removal of the Berkeley Big People sculptures, to allow him time to find a potential buyer or other solution to avoid any damage to the sculptures, as the city’s removal of the piece could not guarantee its preservation” said Klein. “The city has not yet responded in writing; we are working on a response now and hope to be able to accommodate Mr. Donahue’s request.”

Gary Fergus, Donahue’s lawyer, wrote that the city’s decision to remove the sculptures was an “arbitrary and capricious implementation of its brand new Arts Deaccession Policy,” and that it “violated his rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act and the California Art Preservation Act.”

Moreover, only Berkeley informed Donahue on Oct. 28 that he had the option of finding a third-party buyer, said Fergus. He needs more time to pursue that option.

“There’s simply not enough time between now and the threatened date of destruction of my client’s artwork for him to identify and confirm potential buyers for his artwork,” said Fergus.

But Klein said there is no hard deadline yet — nor had there ever been.

“We had not yet determined a specific timeframe for removal of the sculptures, and there was no firm deadline established in the process that we followed in accordance with local, state and federal regulations,” he said.

After 11 years at each end of the bridge spanning Interstate 80 near Aquatic Park, Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission voted July 24 for “deaccession” of its most expensive piece of public artwork, saying it was too costly to maintain moving forward. Donahue has said he wasn’t given enough time to prepare for the commission’s hearing.

A city-hired consultant found the pair of sculptures had significant cracked and chipped paint that would initially cost between $68,000 and $96,000 to fix, with bi-annual maintenance costing between $13,000 and $15,000. When installed in 2008, Berkeley Big People cost $196,000, $83,000 of which was over budget.

Donahue, who has said the pieces were never properly inspected before this, has maintained he could fix the damage – which he said was just rust and paint flaking — for only $15,000. He said his contract with the city is supposed to ensure a “good-faith” effort be made to maintain the pieces and to “secure the artist’s recommendations with respect to all repair, maintenance and restoration to be made to the work during the lifetime of the artist.”

Four years ago, Donahue alerted Berkeley that the sculptures needed about $6,000 in repair work, but the city did not heed his advice, wrote Fergus. The consultant’s report is suspect, too, he wrote, because she misidentified the materials used to make the sculptures in one location, wrote Fergus.

“The city of Berkeley has never made any good faith efforts to maintain the Berkeley Big People,” Fergus wrote.

Donahue is also concerned that removing the statues will cause “irreparable harm” to the Emeryville artist’s reputation, said Fergus.

The original concept was for the art to represent a gateway to the city. The work underwent five years of public scrutiny by the arts commission and a 10-person selection committee. It was initially part of the pedestrian bridge budget, and the city council funded the $83,000 in overruns of what ended up costing the city $196,000.

The 28-foot-by-12-foot-by 12-foot sculpture on the bridge’s east side depicts what many say the city is all about; free speech, protest and Berkeley cultural contributions. It includes depictions of Mario Savio as he kicked off the Free Speech Movement, the People’s Park protests, and the tree-sitters outside UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium.

The piece on the bridge’s eastern span, closer to the waterfront, shows a boater, a jogger, someone flying a kite, a bird watcher gazing through binoculars and a dog catching a Frisbee.

The work of Donahue, who is on Emeryville’s City Council and owns a local gallery, can be found in many places, including Italy, New York, New Jersey and Colorado. Donahue has taught at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and California College of the Arts.

He said he believes the effort to remove Berkeley Big People is mostly motivated by an art commission that didn’t originally approve the work.