Last summer, the Unified Port of San Diego ruffled the local art world's feathers when it announced cuts to its public-art program. Large deficits caused sweeping slashes to the port's overall budget, but many arts advocates argued that the public-art program, which had collected a surplus of $2.4 million, should've been left alone.
The cuts came not long after the port released its first-ever comprehensive curatorial strategy, which outlined some smart, exciting and contemporary approaches to public art. A few of the port's so-called Tidelands Art projects under the new curatorial strategy had even been approved, but had to be canceled. Provocative works by artists like Adam Belt, Jose Parral, Patrick Shields and Margaret Noble were essentially dangled in front of the public's face and then quickly snatched away.
Under the new strategy, the port was poised to become a leader in countywide public art, but the budget cuts have relegated the arts staff to mostly maintaining a collection of approximately 100 pieces.
The port's latest budget is better in terms of allocating funds to public art—$317,000 this fiscal year, up from $200,000 last year, but still nowhere close to the $1.2 million, plus the multimillion dollar surplus it was running before the cuts. Yvonne Wise, the port's curator and director of public art, says the increased budget means they're slowly putting public-art projects established by the curatorial strategy back in the queue and gearing up for some other exciting things.
"We're definitely in better shape," Wise says. "We have a lot of fun things planned; we just had to slow down our speed on getting those projects initiated. But they're still there, and we're really excited to get them out."
Next year, Wise predicts that a handful of projects will be restarted, including "Wrap," a scintillating public-art piece by artist Randy Walker. The port's also collaborating with the Mexican Consulate of San Diego on staging a temporary exhibition of 11 large-scale sculptures called "Our Silences" by Mexican artist José Rivelino Moreno Valle (who goes by Rivelino) at Ruocco Park, possibly as soon as the end of January.
On a recent rainy afternoon, Wise walked CityBeat through one significant public-art project that escaped the budget cuts of 2013 since it was a joint project with the city and Civic San Diego and partially funded under the port's capital-improvement program.
The recently opened "Birds Word" installation by Los Angeles artist Pae White is part of Phase 1 of the port's North Embarcadero Visionary Plan.
The piece, which is still getting final tweaks, comprises several working sculptures that are so well integrated into the architecture of the upgraded esplanade that some people might not immediately recognize it as art at all.
"You know, I don't know if it really matters [if visitors recognize it as art]," Wise says. "I think what people will notice is they're in an immersive environment with interesting colors and forms."
White's work takes the form of a poured-concrete restroom building with words from the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull carved into the outside and a surprising bright-orange interior inside, plus two pavilions, a café building and an information center, all constructed of colored glass. The metal roofs of the two pavilions exhibit text cutouts from the book, and the cutouts and the glass cast eye-catching shadows on the sidewalk on sunny days.
"The colors, the shapes, the textures or an interest in finding words," Wise says, "there's a lot here for a broad audience."