While its future may still be uncertain, a 26-foot-tall anti-nuclear sculpture’s significance to the city of Santa Monica will not be without recognition.
The Santa Monica Landmarks Commission voted unanimously July 9 to designate the late Paul Conrad’s Chain Reaction, a nuclear mushroom cloud sculpture made of chain links, as a city landmark. Installed following a $250,000 anonymous donation, the art piece by the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist has stood at the Civic Center since 1991.
The sculpture, which faces possible removal due to structural safety concerns, is the city’s first public art piece to be landmarked.
In approving landmark status the commissioners rejected a recommendation by staff, who said the sculpture’s cultural influence on the city is unclear and there has not been community-wide acceptance of the piece as a representation of the city or its progressive politics. Staff added that Conrad was a renowned cartoonist but was not known as an established master artist.
A consultant’s report found that Chain Reaction meets several of the criteria for city landmark designation, with which the Landmarks Commission agreed. Commissioners concluded that the work exemplifies the cultural, social or political history of the city; has aesthetic or artistic interest or value; is identified with historic personages or events; and has a unique location or is a familiar visual feature.
The commission noted it was important to acknowledge the work of Conrad, the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes with the Los Angeles Times and an artist, as well as his sculpture’s statement about the threat of nuclear weapons. Some commissioners said the landmark classification alone may not protect the structure’s future but they are tasked with identifying its eligibility as a landmark.
“We’re not saving it through landmarking necessarily, but we’re acknowledging it and giving it the recognition it deserves through landmarking,” said Commissioner Barbara Kaplan.
Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer added, “I think it’s constructive for us to do and it’s appropriate for our role as a landmarks commission that we say it’s recognized as an iconic work of public art that has made a very important statement about our community and who we are.” She said the landmark identification could help give the sculpture and its supporters “more time” in determining how best to preserve it.
The designation comes as supporters are in the midst of a campaign to raise enough funds to prevent the chain-link piece from being decommissioned. The City Council voted in March to approve an Arts Commission recommendation to remove the sculpture from its Civic Center site but delayed the action until Nov. 15 to allow for further testing and the chance for supporters to raise enough funds to restore the work. If funding has not been secured at that time, the work would first be offered to the artist’s family or to an arts institution of their choosing.
Jessica Cusick, city cultural affairs manager, said the Arts Commission “did not take the action lightly,” citing a lack of safety and a low probability of conserving the piece for a reasonable amount of money.
A building official told the council that the internal steel frame showed corrosion and rust, and there was concern related to the base of the steel structure. He said that until further testing is completed there is continuing concern for the structural safety of the sculpture.
Estimates to repair and restore the 26-foot-tall structure have ranged between $227,000 and $423,000.
Conrad’s son, David, is skeptical of the high cost estimates for restoration but believes the message of his father’s work about the power of nuclear weapons still resonates today. That message is specifically tied to historic events such as the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II, he told the Landmarks Commission.
“The Manhattan Project, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cold War – these are all events that inspired the Chain Reaction and the sculpture is meant to remind us of their gravity. I think that’s made it historic indeed,” Conrad said.
Other supporters also spoke of how the statement conveyed through Conrad’s artwork has been timeless.
“This art is trying to keep us focused on one of the most serious things we face as a people,” resident Randy Ziegler told the commission.
Activist Jerry Rubin, who has initiated a fast in support of the preservation, urged the commission to vote in favor of the landmark, saying the sculpture’s message is still needed. “It still has work to do to educate people,” he said.
Conrad’s widow, Kay, said he was grateful that the city allowed him to put the work in the most public of places at the Civic Center and she asked to let his statement of peace live on.
Kaplan of the Landmarks Commission said she believes that once the city accepted the sculpture for installation it needed to make a commitment to maintaining the piece.
“I think that Santa Monica is privileged to have a piece by this artist… and it’s something we should cherish that we have something that is unique and special,” she said.
Rubin said he was very pleased that the commission offered unanimous support, which he believes shows how important the sculpture is to the city and will honor both the city and Conrad’s memory.
David Conrad agreed that the commission’s vote shows the city’s respect for his father’s contribution and can help in the effort to raise additional funds towards its restoration. He remains confident that supporters will be able to do what it takes to preserve Chain Reaction for future generations.
“I think this is the first of many steps and it’s very encouraging,” he said of the landmark approval. ¤