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— The San Diego Convention Center board of director's vote was tied Friday, November 19, three for Nancy Rubins's proposed Harbor Drive sculpture -- the 102-foot-high, 100-ton arch of 60 cabled-together fiberglass boats -- and three against. The deciding vote would come from the board's seventh member, chairman William A. Roper.

"We have a split decision," Roper said. "It's not wrong that we have a difference of opinion, [and] that doesn't make me a bad person. I'd rather not be the tie-breaking vote here."

Before casting his vote, Roper said it was necessary to categorize the responses to Rubins's piece that the board had received: first, the phone calls were "overwhelmingly negative"; second, e-mails, faxes, and letters were "two-thirds positive, one-third negative"; third, the two public-art meetings the previous day, totaling 75 people, were "roughly mixed." He said they could "tally it" either way, as many yeas as nays.

"My biggest concern," Roper continued, "remains that people have expressed an initial reaction of not liking it." He was bothered by a particular label, "the shipwreck term," which was "the preponderance" of what he had received. "There's no way to overcome [this] initial reaction. If it's in a public place and seen by visitors and they see a shipwreck, that's my biggest concern."

Despite his misgivings, it wasn't clear Roper's vote would end Rubins's bid. Roper would be voting for a motion by boardmember Stephen P. Cushman that they "go back to the drawing board" and ask the nine-member oversight committee (which had unanimously endorsed Rubins's work) for "additional options," that is, other proposals that might include this piece as one of those options.

Cushman described himself as a person who supports the arts. In fact, as a member of the Port Commission, he had just voted to spend $170,000 on public art projects. But this piece caused him too much "mixed feelings."

Catherine Sass, coordinator of the Port Commission's Public Art Program, reminded the board that, due to the budget and Harbor Drive's current construction, Rubins's sculpture must get the go-ahead now or else "it doesn't go forward." All understood: Roper would decide its fate.

Still, Roper wanted to know from Rubins why "so many people saw it as a shipwreck." Without challenging that claim, she replied, "If someone sees a shipwreck in this, I can't do anything about that. My intent is not a shipwreck. There's nothing wrecked in these boats. They're all beautifully made." Rubins insisted, as did others, that "a great work of art must evolve over time."

To no avail. Roper voted with Cushman, Brian Seltzer, and Patrick Shea, four against three (Gail Stoorza-Gill, Fahari Jeffers, and Maria Nieto Senour), and, finally, it was over. At the door, Cushman couldn't get past Rubins. The L.A. artist delivered her own torpedo to Cushman's turned head.

"Friends said to me, 'You know, Nancy, San Diego is really a provincial city. It's immature, and you don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting your work accepted.' They told me it's full of small-minded people. And, Mr. Cushman, you just proved them right. I'm sorry you're so petty."

That indeed nailed it shut, ending a week of strange dialogue between the media and the public, citizens and artists, board members and city arts and culture commissioners. The board's vote seemed surprising because that morning ten people, the three female voting board members, and the two non-voting board members, Reint Reinders and Duke Sobek, testified to their approval, some their adoration, for Rubins's proposal. Among the yeasayers was oversight committee member Gerry McAllister, who said, "Don't be swayed by some negative comments. The public has a right to their opinion. But we have to consider what [their] opinion is based on and [their] background." Sculptor Malcolm Jones said that the Eiffel Tower, at first "vilified by critics," would become "a huge symbol of the city." To which Roper's deadpan retort was, "Isn't that the same Eiffel Tower that's modeled on the one in Las Vegas?"

Besides the artist, the victim in this art project/media event is San Diego's public discourse, that is, the language that community leaders and the media use to communicate. It began with the term "shipwreck," tagged on by the Union-Tribune editorial writers: "Proposed sculpture is truly a shipwreck." Under that heading the Union published six condemnatory letters and its own op-ed piece, "Cutting-edge ugliness." Two days before, the paper had featured art critic Robert Pincus's endorsement and a photo of the model. The editors, however, wrote that the photo "did enough justice to Rubins's proposal to bring out the art critic in just about everybody who saw it."

Then the TV stations weighed in. Two people told me that the morning anchors at KUSI-TV, Laura Buxton and Stan Miller, had loads of fun teasing the sculpture on their morning program. I tracked KFMB-TV's coverage on News 8, where giggles were also hard to suppress. Denise Yamada introduced the story: "Is it art or just plain ugly?" Reporter Kathy Chin showed snippets of the outreach sessions held the day before the vote at the convention center. Three people didn't like it and one did. A skillful repartee ended the segment:

Yamada: "Now this so-called sculpture [Chin giggles] would be higher than the Convention Center?"

Chin: "It would be a little bit above 102 feet up in the air, which is pretty tall and, as you heard, just about everybody we talked to, they don't like it [shaking a sour face]."

Yamada: "Who knows. We'll see what those committees have to say."

Chin: [nervous laugh] "Yeah, we'll see."

Finally, we viewers were asked to vote our preference online at KFMB's website. Before the outreach sessions began, I asked Gail Goldman, public art director for San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture, about criteria for public-art proposals.

"The criteria are based on the process. The criteria were the goals of the project: to mitigate the expansion's impact on blocked access to the bay; to provide a terminus to fit at Harbor, [where] Fifth ends; to create a landmark to enhance the landmark status of the convention center."

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