Sculptor Scott Donahue works to delay removal of ‘Berkeley Big People’ statues

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Months after the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission voted to remove the “Berkeley Big People” statues, local artist and Emeryville City Councilmember Scott Donahue has threatened to delay the removal of his “Berkeley Big People” statues.

In July, the Civic Arts Commission voted affirmatively to remove the “Berkeley Big People” statues because of their allegedly high maintenance and repair costs, according to a letter from Berkeley city manager Dee Williams-Ridley to Berkeley City Council and Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Williams-Ridley alleged that the statues were also removed because they were not aesthetically compatible with the design of the bridge they sat on.

“The artwork is in poor condition due to the use of unsuitable materials, which has led to systemic material failure,” alleged a report conducted by RLA Conservation of Art & Architecture.

This report was part of an “overall inventory and assessment of the City of Berkeley’s Civic Art Collection,” according to a report cited in a previous The Daily Californian article.

Donahue constructed the “Berkeley Big People” statues on the Interstate 80 bicycle and pedestrian bridge in 2008 after winning a 2002 national art competition. According to Donahue, the statues are meant to represent the culture and recreational life of Berkeley.

In a letter to Jordan Klein, Berkeley economic development manager, Donahue’s lawyer Gary Fergus alleged that the city did not uphold the original 2003 contract between Donahue and the Civic Arts Commission.

According to Fergus, the original contract allegedly promised to both maintain the artist’s commissioned work and heed the artist’s recommendations concerning repairs.

“As far my client can tell, the City of Berkeley has never made any good faith efforts to maintain the Berkeley Big People and certainly has never sought my client’s recommendations with respect to all repair, maintenance and restoration as required by the contract,” Fergus alleged in the letter.

Fergus also cited a staff report that outlines three conditions by which public art commissioned by the city may be decommissioned: If a work of art requires “excessive or unreasonable maintenance,” the art has deteriorated far beyond what could be reasonably repaired without entirely changing the piece or if the commission “wishes to replace a work with a more appropriate work by the same artist.”

In his letter, Fergus alleged that the sculptures were not properly or accurately assessed and that Donahue was not contacted to verify the validity of their claims. For example, Fergus said a consultant alleged that one section of the sculpture was made with fiberglass when it was actually made with mortar.

“My client does not want his reputation and honor irreparable damaged by the destruction of the Berkeley Big People by the City of Berkeley,” Fergus said in the letter.

Contact Blake Evans at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Blake_J_Evans.