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Commissioners Make Major Cuts To Public Art Program

Niki de Saint Phalle's sculpture titled "Coming Together" and located by the San Diego Convention Center is part of the Port District's public art collection.

San Diego's Port commissioners voted Tuesday to adopt a budget for 2013-14 that includes extensive cuts to the Port's public art program.

The San Diego Unified Port District is looking at a roughly $4 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1. As a result, the board of commissioners has made extensive cuts to the Port’s public art program to help close the gap.

At the end of a marathon board meeting Tuesday, Port commissioners voted to adopt a preliminary budget for the upcoming year. One commissioner called it “a bloody road” getting there. Perhaps no program suffered as much bloodletting as the public art program.

Its budget was cut in half to $600,000 and $1.5 million will be drawn from its reserve fund to be used for "general purposes." The program’s staff will be folded into another department. No new public art pieces will be added and some pending contracts canceled.

Commissioner Bob Nelson expressed regret about the decision during the meeting, but cited fiscal responsibility.

"Art is my passion. I’ve been collecting art for over 40 years. So as much as it hurts me, I think it’s the right thing to do," Nelson said.

He addressed his comments to the handful of art supporters in the audience who spoke on the program's behalf and asked commissioners to reconsider.

The final vote left many of those supporters baffled, especially since the commissioners approved a new public art master plan just a few years ago.

Larry Baza, a local gallery owner, is on the Port’s public art committee. He’s dismayed and believes the vote signals a coming end to the Port's public art program.

“I think it’s the death knell and postponing the obvious. And I don’t understand why.”

Local artist David White is the chair of the public art committee. He responded to the "home economics" argument he's heard the commissioners make in meetings leading up to Tuesday's vote. "The idea is that in tough times, when you can't pay rent or pay for food, people don't buy works of art," said White. "And for me, that's the most important reason to have a public art program. Because most people can't afford to buy art."

The last public artwork added into the Port's collection was "Unconditional Surrender," more commonly known as the "kiss statue." The Midway Museum raised the funds to purchase the statue, but the Port is responsible for maintaining it. Its addition led to controversy and resignations from the public art committee.

There will be a public hearing on July 16 after which the budget will be finalized.

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