Tom Otterness and SF General Hosptial

Here’s a puzzle: how can the following commission for hospital art in San Fransisco turn wildly controversial?

A large bronze Mother with Children sculpture by acclaimed artist Tom Otterness. The charming sculpture, which features Otterness’ signature cartoon-like figures, celebrates the joy of a new baby and the role that hospitals play in providing health services in the community. For the pedestrian walkway to the entrance, Otterness designed a suite of playful small bronze heart-shaped characters engaged in activities such as talking on a cell phone to daydreaming.

Proposed Sculpture for SF General Hospital (via SFAC)

The answer: one 1977 video depicting Mr. Otterness shooting and killing a dog he had adopted. The film, titled “Shot Dog Film” is not a secret. It’s existence has occasionally appeared in one press outlet or another since 2008 and even as early as 1997. Yet there has been a recent surge of press coverage generating outrage that a dog killer was awarded two high profile commissions in San Fransisco. Every time I see one of his hundred friendly bronze blob figures in the New York subway system I must admit, for a split second, I imagine said friendly bronze blob shooting a puppy.  It is this almost inevitable association, now that “Shot Dog Film”‘s gory scenario has been etched in the collective memory of media-reading San Fransicanites, which will cost Otterness the $750,000 contract for art in the new Central Subway, offered to him by the San Fransisco Arts Commission in July 2010. What it will not cost him, is a parallel contract for a sculpture at San Fransisco General Hospital. This is largely due to the fact the city has already paid him $365,750 of $700,000 for the bronze hospital sculpture, titled “Mother with Children.” Terminating the contract would be mean loosing a over a quarter of a million dollars. According to Artinfo “Kate Patterson, spokeswoman for the Arts Commission, said the judging panel was not aware of the 1977 film’s existence when they selected Otterness. The artist told ABC7 that he hopes ‘San Franciscans can forgive him for something he did more than 30 years ago.'”” Otterness puts things a little more blunty, or at least did when the NY Observer questioned him about the video earlier this year:

“What the f do I do with this?” he said. He grew visibly upset. “Certainly the scene it was part of-it was in the context of the times and the scene I was in.” He began again. “It is something I’ve grown to understand that nothing really excuses that kind of action. I had a very convoluted logic as to what effect I meant to have with that video. Whatever I had in mind, it was really inexcusable to take a life in service of that.”

This commission is one piece of an approximately $7 million Art Enrichment fund to enhance a new nine-story, 448,000-square-foot inpatient care facility. I’ve been following the project for a while now and feel badly writing about it in the context of all this controversy because, in all actuality, it’s an impressive and unusual initiative to put a major, high profile, public arts scheme inside of a new public hospital build.  Otterness is just one of 13 artists commissioned as part of a much, much larger scheme implemented by the San Fransisco Arts Commission, the non-profit organization charged with selecting and managing art for San Fransisco’s civic spaces. I encourage you to look over all the commissioned works at the Art’s Council website here – I’m excited to see this all realized and installed! For this commission:

Arts Commission staff worked with the 13 selected artists, who represent diverse artistic and ethnic backgrounds, to develop proposals for artwork that would be appropriate for this type of setting. The guidelines provided to the artists drew upon several studies that measure the impact of art on the clinical and behavioral outcomes of patients in hospital settings. The studies indicated that patients who are exposed to art, especially works that incorporate natural imagery, experience improved health outcomes. Art has also been proven to have a positive impact on the pleasure and well-being of staff and visitors. A hospital arts committee composed of representatives from each area that will receive public art also participated in the selection process, directly contributing their knowledge and sensibility about patient care.

Below are the beginning sketches illustrating the very early phrases of a few of the works that other artists are making for the hospital.

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