Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission votes to remove ‘Berkeley Big People’ statues

Sam Albillo/Staff

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Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission voted in favor of removing the two “Berkeley Big People” statues located on the Interstate 80 bicycle and pedestrian bridge because of the artwork’s “failing condition” and the financial burdens involved to repair them, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

The statues — located on the east and west ends of the bridge — have been assessed by RLA Conservation, which determined in a report that the statues have several surface and structural issues.

 “The artwork is in poor condition due to the use of unsuitable materials, which has led to systemic material failure,” reads the report, which was written as part of an “overall inventory and assessment of the City of Berkeley’s Civic Art Collection.” 

Moisture was found seeping out of the concrete, and several parts of the statues are cracked. Exposure to extreme weather conditions has caused “large gray patches and streaks across all of the figures,” according to the report.  

Meanwhile, repairing the “Berkeley Big People” statues would cost $68,000 to $96,000, and maintenance would cost between $26,920 and $31,000 annually.

Those in favor of the statues’ removal also stated that the works lack aesthetic compatibility with the design of the bridge, according to Chakko.

Although the removal of the statues was approved by the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission in a 7-1 vote, not everyone is in favor of their removal. 

According to Chakko, Berkeley City Civic Arts Commission representative Hiroko Tamano — who voted against the statues’ removal — suggested a variety of alternatives to removing the statues, including painting them black. None of her suggestions, however, were seconded as amendments to the motion.

Ann Harlow, the president of the Berkeley Historical Society, added that she finds it “distressing that the need for expensive maintenance was not foreseen in the commissioning process.”

Scott Donahue, the sculptor of the “Berkeley Big People” statues and an Emeryville City Council member, also attended the meeting. His comments were taken into consideration before the commission voted, Chakko said in an email.

The “Berkeley Big People” statues were installed in 2008 after Donahue was selected to craft them in 2003. The statues were intended to represent the city and its people.

The urban and cultural experience of Berkeley is depicted on the sculpture found on the eastern side of the bridge. It features the Campanile, a violinist, a scientist, an activist and a person in a wheelchair.

The west side of the bridge is home to a statue that represents nature and leisure. It includes bird-watchers, kite flyers and a dog catching a Frisbee.

While it was decided that the statues would be removed, the commission has yet to initiate the process.

“Once the Civic Arts Commission votes to initiate the process, there is no further action required by City Council,” Chakko said in the email.

Chakko added that because the artwork is so visible, an information report will be submitted to the Berkeley City Council for an upcoming meeting on Sept. 24.

Mallika Seshadri is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.