We're so far from a bull market these days that even the cows are suffering. San Diego's CowParade, a public art exhibit of painted fiberglass cows originally slated to debut in January, has been forced to do some serious skimming. Instead of 200 life-size cows displayed in prominent places throughout the county, CowParade will now feature 50 cows in downtown La Jolla. The launch has also been pushed back to March.
“It's difficult for everyone,” says Bryan Spevak, an account executive at Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, the PR firm handling the business side of the for-profit exhibit. “There was an unforeseen economic downturn that no one predicted or saw coming. The entire project is affected.”
Each blank-slate bovine needs a sponsor, and finding companies willing to shell out $7,500 and more to participate in a public art project that doesn't allow any logos—in other words, no overt advertising opportunities—has been tough.
“It's a horrible time to be beating on people's doors to get sponsorship dollars,” Spevak adds.
The history of the painted heifers dates back to 1998, when the first CowParade debuted in Zurich; the stateside version launched in Chicago a year later. The basic premise is to give talented local artists a blank but broad sculptural object to decorate as they wish. The public gets to enjoy the scenery, and at the end, the cows are auctioned off with proceeds going to charity. Since its inception, CowParade has traveled the globe several times over and raised $25 million. Edgy artists such as David Lynch and Radiohead have even contributed to the cause.
San Diego announced its CowParade (www.cowparadesandiego.com) back in June, at a press conference attended by an all-smiles Mayor Jerry Sanders and other public figures. As milk and cookies were served, everyone patted each other on the back and promised that CowParade would be the biggest thing since pasteurization. Some 300 locals answered the call-to-artists. Many passed the initial vetting process, but only a small fraction has so far received the go-ahead and the $1,000 stipend. Why? There's no cash for cows.
Sean Brannan, CowParade's artistic coordinator, is among those artists assured a spot in the La Jolla exhibit. He weeds through applications and places approved submissions on a sponsorship page of CowParade's website. Though his dealings with the financial side of things are minimal, he's witnessed the lack of money's impact firsthand. Even among the artists pre-approved to paint cows and given a workspace in the CowParade “lab” at Point Loma's Liberty Station, several still are working sans sponsor. It's a veritable cow-tastrophe.
“Several heavy-hitters in San Diego are not stepping up to support a public art project like this,” Brannan says, adding that it's not surprising given that the “economy's just been wiped out.”
Brannan concedes that San Diego's relatively anemic arts scene might have something to do with the lackluster sponsorship support.
“If this were in L.A. or New York, I think it would be a little different,” he says. “I would like to see it be just as successful in San Diego.”
Still, the cutbacks haven't dampened Brannan's enthusiasm for the project. “If you could see the reaction from people that actually get to see the cows, handle the cows, interact with the cows—they freak out. They have a visceral reaction when they come in contact.”
Artist Christopher Polentz has experienced such responses firsthand. He's working on his cow—titled “CloWds” and sponsored by the California Milk Advisory Board—in his San Marcos garage. “All of my neighbors think it's hilarious,” he laughs. “The whole neighborhood is keeping tabs on it. When people walk by, they want to see progress.”
Especially captivated are his two little boys, who come home every day from school to check for new clouds painted against the cow's sky-blue background. Both Polentz and his wife are artists, so he hopes his kids—ages 3 and 4—recognize the artistry of it. “But mostly they just think it's a big blue cow.”
Polentz wasn't aware that the project had been scaled back—in fact, he'd barely heard of CowParade before a friend forwarded him the call-to-artists—but like everyone else, he shrugs it off as fallout from the fallen economy. “What company is going to spend whatever is being asked of them to spend on a cow that's unnecessary?”
But, really, isn't public art more important than ever right now? The whole point of it is to stir the soul of the Everyman, to allow each of us to openly enjoy what is usually cloistered behind the walls of museums and wealthy homes. It's the perfect time to throw the people a T-bone.
“Yes, I think public art is always necessary,” agrees Polentz. “It is the signature of our culture. It is who we are.”He didn't always think so. During his two decades as a commercial illustrator, he says he “pooh-poohed public art because it had an aristocracy about it, like it's better than other art.”
But as he's matured, Polentz points out that his opinion has evolved. “I think [public art] is important because it enhances the human experience.” (And, frankly, it doesn't hurt that painted cows hardly convey an elitist vibe.)
The Monday after Thanksgiving, CowParade director Michael Kinsman sent an e-mail to Brannan detailing the reined-in scope of the show. Kinsman says CowParade based its original goal of 200 cows on the exhibits in other cities, and—no surprise—cites the flailing economy as the culprit. Summed up, his overview was consistent with his colleagues: “Who knew?”
But, no matter what happens next, Kinsman promises San Diego's cows will show up for their parade—even if there's a little less tickertape and fanfare.