The High Price of Getting a Head: City Hall Busts Cost an Arm and a Leg

MilkMemorial_fulls422422.jpg

The new Milk bust costs about as much as 14,860 gallons…

By Joe Eskenazi

On May 22, something extraordinary will happen. For the first time since 2004, people will march into City Hall with the actual goal of looking at one of the busts gracing the edifice. The last time this happened was four years ago, when Willie Brown earned a City Hall bust (no, not the kind that involves the perp walk).

The new bust is of Harvey Milk – and, make no mistake, it is impressive (there’s the mock-up on the right). It will be unveiled to much fanfare, perhaps attract a stream of visitors for a while and then, it will take its place alongside busts of San Francisco folks you’ve probably never heard of such as Edward Robeson Taylor or Michael O’Shaugnessy.

Especially in a transitory city such as San Francisco (in which the statement “I was born here” earns you a glance akin to the one you’d get if you uttered “I have a third testicle!”) it’s important to salt the city with visual reminders that life did exist here before 2006 or 1997 or WHENEVER YOU CAME!

That being said, when's the last time someone thought, “Hey, let’s go look at the bust of George Christopher in City Hall”? But while the busts blend into the scenery, their price tags do not. The winner of the competition to create the Milk bust received $57,500.

“We came up with that figure after doing research on the cost of bronze, artists’ fees, the cost of similar projects in other cities, the cost of transporting it, installing it, the cost of the stone and how much it would cost to carve text in the pedestal,” explains Jill Manton, the city’s public arts program director.

It warrants mentioning that this money is privately raised – but, still, isn’t that a lot of money for a sculpture that essentially performs the same task in adorning City Hall that, perhaps, a bunch of blue bottles would in your apartment window?

When I posed that question to various folks involved in city government and/or erecting busts, the answer uniformly didn’t weigh how much a new bust cost in relation to serving, say, hot dinners for the poor but compared to other busts.

The bust of Mayor John Shelley dedicated in 1992 cost $50,000; the 1997 Dianne Feinstein bust was $30,000. The San Francisco Arts Commission’s files, however, are incomplete and Manton could not tell me how much other busts cost. When I queried Eleanor Johns, the executive director of the Willie L. Brown, Jr. Institute on Politics and Public Service, how much the bust of Hizzoner cost, she said it was donated by artist Richard MacDonald, and therefore didn’t really have a price tag (though P.J. Corkery, who co-wrote Brown’s autobiography – so he oughtta know -- has noted that the bust is worth $100k).

Incidentally, paying through the nose is just the beginning for those who wish to place a bust in City Hall: “The city never makes it easy for anyone,” admits Manton. “Artists have to have signed and stamped engineering drawings, liability and fine arts insurance, transportation insurance and attend a number of meetings and presentations.”

Enter Leonid Nakhodkin. An alarmingly cheerful former political prisoner of the Soviet Union, he jaunts around San Francisco in an eye-catching black cowboy hat and bellows “Everything is perfect!” into his phone in lieu of “hello.” His time in the gulag was excellent training for negotiating the slings and arrows of landing a bust.

Nakhodkin – who hopes to donate a sculpture of former S.F. mayor and philanthropist Adolph Sutro – says he’s found an artist who’ll do a bust in marble for $25,000 to $30,000.

“People tell me this is not expensive,” he says happily. “People explain to me this is cheap.”

Manton ominously notes that Nakhodkin’s desire to work in marble when the dozen other busts in city hall are bronze may “cause problems.” But the Ukrainian is undaunted.

Marble “is cheaper and five times better. With bronze, you cannot tell if the person is white or African American – my bust will look as the person did in life!”

Fair enough. But when it comes to City Hall busts, Willie Brown was African American. And everyone else was not.

Art: Daub Firmin and Hendrickson Sculpture Group; Photo by Daniel Nicoletta


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