April 29 2014 04:06 PM

How two works by San Diego artists found their way into the almost-complete plaza at the last minute

Gail Goldman , with Allison Renshaw’s painting
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

A recurring feature looking at new public-art projects in San Diego

"Joni Mitchell
would be proud," says Gail M. Goldman walking through the almost-completed Waterfront Park, which surrounds the County Administration Center in downtown San Diego. "They've literally torn up a parking lot and put in a park."

Goldman is the consultant working with the county to insert public art into the new park, which opens to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 10. The $49.4-million project converted eight acres of parking lot around the county building into a community plaza, the centerpiece of which is an impressive interactive fountain that features jets of water shooting in arches. To replace the lost public parking, the county added a large, subterranean garage at the south end of the park.

The main entrances to the parking garage will soon be colored with large-scale reproductions of abstract paintings by two well-known San Diego artists, Harold Cohen and Allison Renshaw. While Renshaw pulls from architecture, fashion and other contemporary culture for her work, Cohen is famous for his abstract collaborations with AARON, a clever computer program he designed to make art autonomously (AARON fills a canvas with line drawings, and then Cohen steps in with paint). Both Renshaw's and Cohen's original paintings were purchased, along with the rights for reproduction, and are currently hanging in stairwells inside the County Administration Center near a main entrance.

The genuine effort to get public art in Waterfront Park was undertaken well after design, and even construction, of parts of the project was underway. Initially, there wasn't a budget for public art, partly because the county doesn't require it (the official policy states that an artwork allowance of one-half percent of the estimated cost of the project may be spent on art).

Largely a result of county Supervisor Ron Roberts' personal interest in getting public art in the park—combined with the popularity of the world-class collection of art included in the recent construction of the County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa—the county was eventually able to round up $100,000 for art at Waterfront Park.

"Every time I ran into Ron Roberts, he would say, 'I really want to put art at Waterfront Park,'" Goldman says. "When I finally got word that it was happening, I was, like, 'OK, now, how do we do this? We only have six months. What do we do to make this happen?'"

Despite the relatively small budget and short timeline, Goldman says she was determined to make the most of it. She zeroed in on San Diego painters, and a committee ultimately chose Renshaw and Cohen.

Goldman proposed that rather than commissioning new murals by the artists, the county could buy existing artwork that could be reproduced in a larger, sturdier format suitable for the garage. The challenge was finding a method of reproducing the art that would be respectful of the artists' original works while still being durable enough to last in a highly trafficked environment. Eventually, Goldman settled on high-resolution photographic reproductions mounted on aluminum panels.

"The result is phenomenal," Goldman says, pulling out a panel filled with a portion of Cohen's reproduced painting. "I mean, you can see the brushstrokes in these things."

Installing the first panel of Harold Cohen's enlarged painting.
George Spicer Bredehoft / Artefact Design


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