City of Berkeley removes ‘Berkeley Big People’ statues from Interstate 80 bridge

Photo of Big People statues on the I-80 pedestrian bridge
Sam Albillo/File
Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission voted to deaccession both 'Berkeley Big People' statues in July 2019 following a conservator’s assessment that found 'systemic material failure' caused by the use of 'unsuitable materials' in their construction.

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After 12 years atop the Interstate 80 pedestrian and bicycle overpass, the “Berkeley Big People” statues have been removed by the city of Berkeley due to their costly maintenance and repair needs, as first reported by Berkeleyside.

Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission voted to deaccession both statues in July 2019 following a conservator’s assessment that found “systemic material failure” caused by the use of “unsuitable materials” in their construction. The cost of the recommended repairs was estimated to be between $68,000 and $96,000, with additional maintenance costs of about $15,000 recommended every six months thereafter, according to the assessment.

Scott Donahue, Emeryville City Council member and the local artist who created the statues, disputed the assessment, claiming that some of the repair estimates were “absurdly valued,” and offered to complete the needed repairs himself for $15,000 but was denied.

“It seemed like all of the conservatorship from this conservator’s point of view was as if this artwork was a historic painting at a museum, not public art here in California,” Donahue said.

The two statues, standing nearly 30 feet tall, were originally installed in 2008 after Donahue won a national art competition held by Berkeley’s Civic Arts Program, according to a 2019 staff report. The statue on the eastern side of the bridge represents the “urban and cultural experience” of Berkeley, while the sculpture on the western side depicts “recreation and nature.”

Following the conservator’s assessment and a “prolonged period of negative public response” to the sculptures’ locations on the bridge, the Civic Arts Commission’s Public Art Committee considered repairing and relocating them to a more suitable location. After finding out that the cost to do so could be upward of $250,000, the commission voted to deaccession the statues altogether.

Even before they were installed, the statues exceeded cost estimates and faced resistance from stakeholders. According to the staff report, the sculptures were originally commissioned for $113,000, but after “numerous cost overruns” ended up costing nearly $197,000.

Donahue said he was also forced to alter his original design for the sculptures after Caltrans objected to the initial proposal, which included four statues mounted outside the fence of the bridge overlooking the interstate, rather than the two large sculptures within the fence that were eventually settled on.

When both statues were removed last week, Donahue transported them to a location in Alameda where he said he plans to do the repairs before finding the “Berkeley Big People” a new home.

“I think that the city is happy they’re gone and I’m pleased they are not destroyed,” Donahue said. “I’m sad about them being (deaccessioned), but when you make public art you got to expect problems.”

Jacob Souza is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.