The twenty residents gathered in a redwood grove at Berkeley’s Ohlone Park on a recent Sunday were in no mood to hear a eulogy for environmentalist David Brower. Casting venomous glances at a twenty-foot-tall sphere jerry-rigged with PVC pipe, they were there to say no to Spaceship Earth.
Brower is revered by environmentalists because, among many other accomplishments, he built the Sierra Club into a major force and helped to establish Point Reyes National Seashore. But Spaceship Earth, a fifteen-foot-diameter globe created by Finnish-American sculptor Eino as a tribute to Brower, is having trouble finding somewhere to land.
The city hoped to install the Spaceship in a nook in Ohlone Park, a swath of green space created when several blocks of houses were condemned to make way for BART. But the neighbors were having none of it. In a two-hour meeting led by David Snippen, vice chairman for the Civic Arts Commission, local residents politely cut Snippen off when he attempted to explain why Brower should be honored in such a manner. They complained that the piece would be too big and too ugly. “I don’t want more clutter in the park,” said Carolyn Sell, who lives across the street from the proposed site. Peter Selz, former director of the University Art Museum, was blunt. “If anyone should have a memorial, it’s David Brower,” he said. “But this is an abominable piece of art.”
There were other concerns: The proposed location, between two redwood trees, is already a favorite spot for homeless campers. Some Ohlone residents were concerned that privacy afforded by the bulk of the globe would attract even more.
One humorous element of the whole affair is that no one, except possibly Maxwell’s widow, has seen the actual sculpture. It was never photographed, and it’s not clear whether it ever has been assembled. It was fabricated in wedge-shaped pieces that lie in storage in a San Francisco pier.
The sculpture has an unhappy history. Flush with cash in 2000 from the sale of his company to Nestlé for a reported $135 million, Brian Maxwell, the founder of PowerBar, commissioned Eino to make a memorial to his dying hero Brower. But Maxwell himself died in 2003, leaving his widow to find a home for the monument.
While Brower met with Eino in the last year of his life, some doubt whether he would have found the idea of excavating 350,000 pounds of Brazilian quartzite and shipping it more than six thousand miles to California an appropriate homage to the environmental movement.
Jennifer Maxwell’s lawyer, Richard Duane, didn’t respond to requests for an interview, so there’s no answer to another question: What possessed her husband to commission a 17.5-ton sculpture without having a place to put it?
It was first offered to San Francisco. But, while Berkeley officials are adamant that it was never formally rejected by the city, neither was it accepted. Next, Duane contacted his friend Tom Bates, the mayor of Berkeley, and offered the sculpture free of charge to the city. Bates accepted enthusiastically. “I thought it was a wonderful thing,” he said. “I love David Brower … and I wanted to honor his memory in as many ways as I could.” Bates asked the city council to direct the Arts Commission to find a place for it. But some in the arts world don’t see selecting public art as part of the mayor’s job description. The piece has become a political football, pitting the commission in a power struggle with Bates and the city council over which has final authority.
“There was a misunderstanding when this first came about,” Snippen said. “I reminded the mayor that there is a process, and that the commission does have the authority to commission, find locations for art, and install it.”
Still, in December 2004, the Arts Commission said it would conditionally accept the sculpture, if a bronze figure of David Brower climbing the globe was removed, if the Maxwell family would pay all costs, and if it could find a suitable site.
After the Waterfront Commission rejected the sculpture by a vote of eight to one, Ohlone Park was next on the list. But one day after all the negativity in the park, the neighbors packed a public hearing held by the Parks and Recreation Commission. The commission voted to recommend a third site, Aquatic Park, where Spaceship Earth would replace a dead tree.
They may have better luck there — there are no neighbors but the ducks.