Balboa Park Street Sculptures: Endangered Public Art Species?

What's said to be the first "public art" in San Diego may wind up being kicked to the curb.

At issue is “Night Visions,” a series of street-sign sculptures along Park Boulevard near the San Diego Zoo, for which the city paid artist Roberto Salas $11,000 in 1989.

But with public art being no stranger to controversy, the sun soon may set on “Night Visions.”

Reaction to the prospect of its disappearance from the 'public right-of-way' has been mixed. 

"I've been surprised at how many people know about these sculptures, and have been writing or have a strong opinion about it,” says Kelly Bennett, arts and culture writer for Voice of San Diego, who first reported on the controversy. “There's been some really thoughtful reflections in our comments or the letters we’ve received.”

Expected to be on display only for 10 years, all but two of the original dozen pieces of “Night Visions” are still there after 23 years -- but by now, many are timeworn.

"A couple of them are wobbly, they're missing some vinyl,” Bennett said in an interview Wednesday. “Some of the aluminum is cracking. And they're not in the shape that they once were. So the city would either need to pay some money to restore them, or de-commission them. De-install them."

And, as it turns out, the city's public art program manager has recommended that they be removed, and offered to Salas if he wants them back.

Al Sosa, a New Yorker who's here on an extended family visit, had this suggestion as he took a break Wednesday from a bicycle jaunt past “Night Visions” along Park Boulevard: "Auction them. Okay? It is a piece of art; it has historical nature. Maybe you have an auction, and then the funds you raise through the auction could be used to purchase, or compensate people for creating new ones."

For his part, Salas concedes it's legally out of his hands – but insists that there's an issue of respect involved.

In an interview Wednesday, Salas said the city went looking for lowball bids to restore “Night Visions” after he quoted a price of $40,000, and then refused to bargain with him.

"Why can't I have an audience? Why can't we sit down?" he asked, rhetorically, adding that his real concern is not about money: “It's just the disrespect and lack of communication that we need to establish."

Now that the de-commissioning process has been set in motion, Salas says the city has rejected any historical value to "Night Visions", and sent a signal that marginalizes the larger public art community that followed in his wake.

"I'm speaking on behalf of a lot of artists who essentially will be faced with this particular situation,” Salas said. “But it's policy we formed 24 years ago that insures that things are taken care of."

The city's public art program manager had this response: "The city has a responsibility to act in a way that is accountable and serves the greatest public good."

Members of the city's Public Art Committee will hear the issue on November 29th, and Salas might wind up before the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture as well.

Contact Us