Paul Conrad‘s monumental anti-war sculpture CHAIN REACTION, is slated for demolition soon. A figurative work, depicting an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud, and made out of massive chain links, it has stood proudly in front of Santa Monica’s City Hall for decades.
Like many, I had come to take for granted its forboding magnificance, and had stopped really even noticing it as I drove past the city’s municipal district.
Now, because of complex and sometimes confusing safety concerns, it is to be removed. Over the years the structure, made of various materials including metal and fiberglass, has become less sturdy, and civil engineers fear a calamity is highly likely.
Santa Monica is rightly proud to have one of the most generous, per capita, support of the arts in the United States, and I am very happy to be an artist working in this important art community. When I found out about the probable removal of Chain Reaction, I, like many citizens here was upset and even angry.
I sought information deeper than just what the local ( and usually hostile ) headlines were publishing. Facing the safety concerns, the Santa Monica Arts Comission, was forced to deal with a difficult and unpopular decison to remove the sculpture from being part of its permanent collection, through a process called deassencion.
I was, much to my surprise, nominated and elected to the Santa Monica Arts Comission, but that all happened well after the deassencion debates and ultimate decisions were already made. Therefore, unfortunately, I never did get to particpate in those debates, nor was, or will ever be, able to cast my vote, in this very controversal decsion. I do not envy my collegues on the Commission for having had to make such a difficult and unpopular decison. They genuinely seem to be as unhappy about what they were forced to do, as anyone. The responsibility given to those involved in community service, often face situations, where no viable option is attractive. I am sure that the day the Arts Commsion held the vote for deassencion, was not a happy day for any of them.
The Santa Monica Arts Commission, further in its defense, did authorize a matching grant program for Chain Reaction’s extremely expensive restoration. So far, only around $40,000 was raised by community activists dedicated to the scultpure’s preservation, Even with the additional $40,000 that the Arts Commission would provide, the total is still so far below the estimated $400,000 needed to safely retrofit and restore this work. It seems that time has run out, short of a miracle.
Although the Arts Commision removed the sculpture from being part of its permanent collection, the Santa Monica Landmark Commision, did then make the sculpture an official landmark, which does of course, further complicate the situation.
Some maintain that CHAIN REACTION is not really even a work of art, because they state, that it was not made by an ‘important artist’. That’s a type of elitist artthink I cannot stomach. Paul Conrad was perhaps not best known for his sculptures, but was a multiple Pulizer Prize winning political cartoonist, who Richard Nixon despised and feared. That’s good enough for me. But even the notion of what it means to be ‘an important artist’, troubles me, for it seem little more than a marketing strategy, used by commercial gallerists and their allies in the museum and critical community, to further inflate the work of already properous, and dare I say, over-exposed artists.
If an artwork is important, then it seems that the artist who made it is also important. The emotional impact that this anti-war symbol has made to the citizens of Santa Monica ( and the countless tourists visiting the ocean two blocks away), surely entitles the work to be considered among the ‘important’. And surely few artists ( including major commerical artists) will ever know what it is like to have had such an enduring and profound emotional impact on so many people, as the late Paul Conrad has had with Chain Reaction.
But its overt and unabashed political overtone challanges the decisions that many in this country have made, and continue to make. Some conspiracists maintain that all the safety concerns about the artwork began soon after the Rand Corporation, a major military contractor, moved across the street from City Hall. No doubt many high- level executives there look out their office windows and face the defiant statue, that seems to give a silent but powerful critique of their career choice. And no doubt many there would be glad to see it go. But there seems to be no real evidence for this, although it is an enjoyable conspiracy to debate about over drinks.
Although the fate of the sculpture at this moment does not seem good, there are many possible scenarios in which the funds to restore the work could still happnen, for example some rich and progressive Hollywood-type coming to the rescue. But time is quickly running out, and it seems less and less likley each day, that the sculpture will continue to stand.
For me, like many others, Chain Reaction is the single most ‘important’ art work in Santa Monica. I will be sad to see it go. I hope that some other city, museum or individual may see fit to acquire it, and give it a new home, where many other citizens of the world may be affected by its somber, but brave emotional statement. Time will tell, but it’s time in Santa Monica seems quickly coming to a close.