The Indo Arch

Although it seems somewhat quaint now, the inherent figuration of these shapes erupted into a major controversy for Walburg. In 1977 the City of Sacramento, led by then-mayor Phillip Isenberg, allocated, per a 1974 city ordinance, three percent of the redevelopment costs earmarked for building a public parking garage to fund works of art. This competition was limited to Sacramento County artists, and the works ultimately selected were the first pieces of public art to be commissioned for the City. The eleven-member Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, established a few years after the passing of the 1974 ordinance, delegated the responsibility for selecting the artworks to a five member jury. Each juror was involved in the arts or art community in some way, for City officials felt strongly that the expenditure of public funding required evidence of due diligence that included involving professionals in the field. Walburg appreciated that direct connection to people that understood what art was about, and decided to submit a watercolor of a proposed sculpture for the competition. The selection process was that once the jury’s decisions had been accepted by the Arts Commission, their recommendations then had to be approved by the Sacramento city council, doing business as the Housing and Redevelopment Agency. In those days, Walburg recalls, “public art” was conceptually restricted to paintings, sculpture, and murals, rather than the broader approach popular today that includes such functional or utilitarian urban components as handrails, benches, tree protectors, and the like. Works proposed for the competition, therefore, included mostly murals or free-standing sculpture.

Screen shot 2014-06-22 at 4.01.00 PMInvolved at the time in researching Islamic and Indian temples, Walburg was particularly fascinated by the pointed arches he had seen in some examples, and they became his specific inspiration for the piece he proposed. He thoroughly studied the projected site, and conceived of this piece as “open, gate-like,…to be located…where the old and new city connect.” He also felt it was “important to have people move through and around it.”

After creating the maquettes, he created a more formal series of sketches and painted a series of four or five watercolors based on the small three-dimensional coppers. Walburg’s sculpture and three other works—out of 31 works submitted for consideration—were unanimously selected and approved by the city council in December, 1977.

The process of submitting the proposal and finalizing the commission, although not without its complications, was practically incidental in comparison to the outcry that greeted the plans for the sculpture just shortly before installation was to begin, some two years later. Indo Arch was intended as a portal onto the K Street Mall, able to be seen from all angles, and tall enough, although it is a pedestrian mall, that fire trucks and other vehicles could pass underneath as required. The width demanded by the city emergency vehicles, therefore, determined the ultimate height of the work. The forty-foot height, however, was a scale that challenged and confronted Sacramento’s understanding of what art was and how it could be assimilated into daily life. Peter Anderson, a writer for The Sacramento Union, in particular, began a campaign to force reconsideration of the commission that he described as “ugly as hell” and resembling “a bionic squirrel’s giant nutcracker;” his crusade was picked up by other newspaper columnists, editorial cartoonists, and cultural critics in the area.

Screen-shot-16PMWalburg hypothesizes that the very scale of the Arch changed peoples’ environment to such an extent that they couldn’t escape interacting with it; soon enough, critics were raging that Walburg’s standard vocabulary of cylinder, pontoons, and hearts instead referenced body parts and even genital shapes. “Once that was pointed out to me I could see what they were talking about,” Walburg admitted later, “but the sexual content was in the eye of the beholder.” “I’m not a writer,” he explained. “My part of the deal was doing my work, not defending its right to be there, or to exist.” Nevertheless, it was clearly debilitating, both physically and emotionally.

The process left him disillusioned: “One of the disappointments to me was to find that art is susceptible to politics, like anything else.” It also left him somewhat bitter, particularly as the City—and other entities—became more cautious about commissioning public art, designing a more elaborate selection process that included adding more numerous groups of panelists, some of whom may have had little or no real involvement with art or the art community, yet were replete with political connections. Trying to cast a positive light on the process, he commented, “For me it’s a double-edged situation. I don’t expect any local support, and I’ve lived without it. It gives me more freedom. If I lived in an area that was more supportive of visual arts, I’d have more demands on my time. The most important thing is to continue doing my work with as little interference as possible. To have people like my work is supportive but is not totally necessary. As an artist I satisfy myself. I feel that’s part of the definition of being an artist.”