More than 20 years have passed since his father created a 26-foot-tall nuclear mushroom cloud made of chain links at Santa Monica’s Civic Center, but David Conrad believes the message his father conveyed with his sculpture still resonates today.
Constructed of copper tubing over a fiberglass core with an internal stainless steel frame, the late Paul Conrad’s Chain Reaction was meant to call attention to the threat of nuclear weapons on the world, which David Conrad says has made it more than just an art piece.
Paul Conrad won three Pulitzer Prizes as a Los Angeles Times political cartoonist covering sometimes controversial issues, but his son believes that the statement made by Chain Reaction is decidedly not controversial. With the threat of nuclear power still very much alive around the world today, the sculpture’s statement still holds as much meaning as it did when it was installed in 1991, David Conrad says.
“I feel the message of the sculpture is timeless,” he said. “We need to be very cognizant of the power of nuclear weapons… and it’s a message that is very much true today.”
Santa Monica activist Jerry Rubin, who is backing an effort to preserve Conrad’s artwork, also feels that the overall issue it represents is very important, noting that the base of the work identifies it as a statement of peace.
“I think this has become probably the most iconic public art piece, not only in Santa Monica, but arguably anywhere in the country,” Rubin said.
The City Council narrowly approved the controversial project in October 1990. The art piece was a gift to the city that was funded by a private donation of $250,000 to the Santa Monica Arts Foundation.
Both Rubin and Conrad believe the fact that the sculpture’s significance has transcended art is what has prompted many people in the community to rally behind Chain Reaction when its future may be in jeopardy.
The Santa Monica City Council voted March 20 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 and repair 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.
The city conducted a preliminary evaluation of the sculpture’s safety last summer after a building official reportedly saw some people climbing and interacting with the structure. City staff had noticed that some fasteners showed severe corrosion and fenced off the chain-link piece to allow for further examination.
Jessica Cusick, city cultural affairs manager, told the council that a very thoughtful analysis process was performed that was commensurate with the importance of the work and how the city values its collection of public art. The examination involved a visual inspection of the internal structure as well as lab testing of the fiberglass and chain links. Lab testing was also done on the fiberglass shell due to its exposure to the elements.
Building official Ron Takiguchi 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 noted that until further testing is completed there is “continuing concern for the structural safety of the sculpture.”
City staff estimated that costs for additional testing, repair and restoration of the 26-foot-tall sculpture could range as low as about $227,000 to as high as about $423,000. They cautioned that even if the city invested in the conservation, it is likely that the Conrad piece would require some repair in the next 10 to 20 years.
“Even if we were to invest in repairing the sculpture, it is quite possible that in five, 10, 15 years this issue would come before another group of all of us to consider,” Cusick said.
Staff noted that the city has limited funds available for such an investment and while the Arts Commission voted in favor of removing Chain Reaction, it asked for a six-month delay for a fundraising campaign to possibly repair the work.
“It’s very difficult to recommend removal of a work of art that is so iconic and beloved by so many people, but it’s a decision we reached with a great deal of time, effort and concern,” Cusick told the council.
Arts Commission chair Mike Myers called the six-month delay for fundraising the fair choice, saying that a number of community members have expressed a desire to save the sculpture.
The Landmarks Commission is scheduled to consider the Conrad piece for landmark status at its April 9 meeting.
James Flurry, who said he worked with Conrad to build the sculpture, thanked the council for allowing for more time and called it a “monument for all peace loving people.”
Sarah Hodson, curator at the Huntington Library where many of Conrad’s works are stored, said the cartoonist’s mushroom cloud is a work that makes one think and has an unmistakable message. “In my view, Chain Reaction occupies a special category of public art,” she said.
Conrad’s widow, Kay, who was also in attendance, 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 live on. “This sculpture represents one of the greatest things he did as an artist but more importantly as an activist,” she said.
Prior to their vote, some council members expressed admiration for Conrad’s career and achievements as an editorial cartoonist.
“He’s probably one of the reasons I became interested in politics because he was provocative and spoke about things I cared about as a young child growing up in Southern California,” said Mayor Richard Bloom, who read Conrad’s cartoons as a youngster.
David Conrad was pleased the city authorized more testing to take place but was skeptical of the high cost estimates for restoration and said there may be alternative figures. “Once we have a real number to work with things are going to make a lot more sense,” he said.
Rubin commended the city for taking steps to help the public artwork despite having limited funding, including accepting donations for the refurbishment to the Arts Foundation, making contributions tax deductible. He believes the community will express their commitment to the iconic sculpture regardless of their views on its message.
“Whether the piece is considered inspirational, shocking or both, I hope people will support this effort,” he said.
Rubin acknowledged that it will take a valiant effort to raise the needed funds but he is confident that the restoration goal can be achieved.
“We’re going to need a chain reaction of support from the community, but I’m positive and I believe that can happen,” he said.
Supporters have a number of events planned over the next several months, including a free screening of the PBS documentary “Paul Conrad: Drawing Fire” at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 1 at Vidiots, 302 Pico Blvd.
Donations toward the Chain Reaction restoration campaign may be made on the website, www.conradprojects.com.