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October 3, 2006 > Pleasing, provocative and public

Pleasing, provocative and public

by Julie Grabowski

Public art in Newark suffered a shocking blow in July when four bronze sculptures were stolen from the Silliman Center grounds. The three themed series, "Softball Kids," "Soccer Kids," and "Summer Series," were commissioned by the city with the support of Fremont Bank in 2000 and the source of great pride. The violation and sadness caused by the theft, however, are not permanent scars for the center. Healing is underway thanks to the original sculpture molds and funds from Art in Public Places, enabling the rebirth of those lost. One of the figures called "pony-tail girl" was removed with the others but found in the center's parking lot; she will undergo repairs and be returned to her location. Recreation Community Services Director David Zehnder says the sculptures are ready to be cast, and when improved security is established, they will be put back in place as originally designed, hopefully before the end of the year.

Security is the major concern in replacing the art, generating ideas for reinforcing the statues and improved surveillance, with cameras trained exclusively on the art and posted notifications of a 24-hour watch. Zehnder says an important factor is better accent lighting, making the area more visible. While there is no 100 percent sure means of safety, measures are being taken to protect the sculptures as much as possible. "I feel an obligation to replace them; make the piece of art whole again," says Zehnder. For him the message is clear: "We won't be deterred by vandalism or theft of public property."

The Silliman Center houses two other bronze works by Utah artist Dennis Smith, who created the three outside series. Life-size sculptures of namesake George Silliman and his wife Beverly greet visitors in the lobby of the Activity Center, while the three children of "Keeping Up" race from the lobby to the pools of the Family Aquatic Center. The beautiful, endearing sculptures at the center comprise the majority of Newark public art, raising the question: why isn't there more throughout the city?

A handful of other pieces can be found, such as the stained glass window "Newark by Night" at the City Administration Building, the representational steel sculpture on the corner of Stevenson Boulevard and Balentine Drive, and the indoor mural at Ash Street Park. But even these seem too small an offering. Economic Development Manager Clay Colvin confirms that there is currently little construction going on, thereby shrinking the opportunity for new art in the community. Another defining factor is that it is up to the builders to decide if they want to include public art in their project. The builder receives a credit for adding art or making improvements, and many developers may decide to put the money into the building to create a better product, or simply choose to pay the Art in Public Places fee. The fee varies, depending on the building's type of use, and is based on square footage. $270 per unit is required of residential building (affordable housing is exempt), 26 cents per square foot for retail space, 38 cents for office space, light manufacturing/wholesale buildings pay 21 cents, and high tech 41 cents per square foot. Colvin says there are plans for development in Newark, but things are currently at the "concept stage."

However, the city is set up for great things with its Art in Public Places program, as well as a master plan dedicated to the creation of more public art. The Art in Public Places fund has been used for many projects since its inception in 1992, perhaps most notably, the launch of the instrumental music program in Newark's elementary and junior high schools. The program is a tremendous success, enjoyed by approximately five hundred kids. The art fund also made the replacement statues for the Silliman Center possible. The city's master plan is aptly named the Public Art Master Plan and is a five-year program that will produce a variety of art throughout Newark, with an emphasis on parks, Old Town, and city "gateways".

But as we await these future feats of the imagination, four loved, well-known children are bravely returning to their Silliman Center home. The "Pitcher" and "Batter" will resume their game, "Off to Play" and "Sunshine" will run to the center once more, restoring inspiration, joy, and beauty to the community.

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