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RSCVA to vote on purchasing damaged Space Whale for up to $200,000


On Thursday board members of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority will take up discussion to allocate up to $200,000 in tourism funding toward the purchase of downtown Reno’s Space Whale sculpture.

It’s the latest attempt to preserve the downtown sculpture at a price already turned down by City of Reno officials.

The funds would “assist the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada” to repair and relocate the iconic — and damaged — artwork “for use by the City of Reno.”

In short, City of Reno leadership wants the Space Whale to stay but doesn’t have the money in the city’s arts budget to purchase, repair and relocate the 50-foot-tall behemoth.

After months of negotiation, sale attempts by the artist — on Facebook, for $1 million — and ongoing deterioration, Mayor Hillary Schieve is looking to have the RSCVA and EDAWN cover the costs to retain an artwork that even the city’s own Arts and Culture Commission recommended be removed.

“It is an unsafe and unsupportable piece of public art,” commission members wrote in a September 2019 letter to the Reno City Council.

That letter was sent the month after its contracted extension had expired and more than a year after the artwork’s original lease, and its residency at City Plaza, was slated to end. In that time, Space Whale LLC and the artist, Matt Schultz, were paid just over $78,000 by the city for installation and monthly lease payments.

Schultz ultimately wanted $500,000 for the piece. The city countered at $150,000; the artist declined.

While the sale price of the new proposal is yet to be disclosed, Schultz said the terms would be similar to the proposal reported by This Is Reno in January: Space Whale LLC would take care of maintenance and upgrades of the sculpture, and a donation would be made to local arts nonprofit The Generator. 

The Generator’s Jerry Snyder today repeated what he’d said in January, that the organization has no contractual obligations related to the Space Whale.

Now, despite Schultz failing to uphold the terms of his contract with the city, by maintaining and insuring the artwork, local officials want to give him hundreds of thousands of tourism and economic development funds. They would also assume the expense and responsibility that the Space Whale has become.

The art has suffered in recent years. Pieces of stained-glass are increasingly found broken and removed from the towering sculpture. Sharp pieces of steel are bent, protruding from the piece, and shards of glass have been found on the ground near the whale.

The damaged Space Whale in October 2020. Image: Ty O’Neil

How did we get here? 

The Space Whale was celebrated back in August 2017 when installation was complete. Locals marveled at the process, which took days and the assistance of a crane and more than a dozen workers to wrap up, and delighted in capturing images of the piece lit up at night. It was contracted to reside at City Plaza for a year, then be removed to make way for another artwork.

In October 2018 the City struck an agreement with Schultz to keep the Space Whale for another year, providing ongoing lease payments and extending the terms of the original contract, which required the artist to maintain and insure the piece.

That apparently didn’t happen.

At the end of the extension, in August 2019, the Space Whale was showing its age — and signs of neglect. This Is Reno first reported then that panes of glass were broken and shattered beneath the whales, some taped together with duct tape and packing tape. The “maintenance” of the artwork didn’t reflect the original artistry.

City staff repeatedly requested of Schultz regular maintenance on the sculpture. Staff as far back as 2017 requested acrylic replace the stained glass.

“There is (still) a lot of packing tape and duct tape covering glass, etc., and, some broken glass as well,” the city wrote to Schultz in August of 2019. “It needs to be addressed since it is a safety issue as well as just looks like it is in disrepair.”

It came to head when, during the holiday lighting ceremony held a year ago, the artist was directed to fix the piece before the event. Repairs, instead, were made while the event was transpiring. The artist, Schultz, said it was difficult to find somebody to fix it “with the short notice.”

The trail of the Space Whale in August 2017 just after installation. Image: Bob Conrad

The Arts and Culture Commission was itching to make a change. Discussion of the Space Whale during commission meetings was thin, but members knew that a decision had to be made. The Arts and Culture budget couldn’t support the ongoing maintenance the piece required and advised City Council members of their options.

“We love the grandeur and color of the sculpture—and appreciate that it’s been a great publicity piece for the City,” they wrote, “…but it has also been a problem in the areas of safety and maintenance.” [Emphasis in original letter.]

Commission members Sharon Honig-Bear and Nettie Oliverio recommended two options: purchase the Space Whale and spend an estimated $100,000 in labor and materials to retrofit the colorful panes with unbreakable Lexan, or look for a new piece of iconic artwork to take its place. The city kept $10,000 for the whale’s removal as part of its original agreement with the artist.

“It is the belief of the Commission — and many other arts groups — that refreshing the art will add renewed excitement to our downtown center,” commission members wrote.

When discussing the content of the letter to City Council, commission member Doug Erwin, who also leads entrepreneurial development at EDAWN, said the group should “stress that it is an expensive piece and given the limited budget they don’t really recommend moving forward with it,” but if it does remain concerns would need to be addressed.

City’s public art policies ignored 

The City of Reno Arts and Culture Commission, and its Public Art Committee, advise Reno City Council members on all aspects of arts and culture in the community. The group of professionals, which include arts advocates and local business leaders, help to set policy and procedures and make recommendations to Council on the selection of artists and artworks to enhance public spaces.

In a meeting in July of this year, Public Art Committee members whittled a stack of 71 artist proposals down to three to recommend artists for an East Fourth Street project. Discussion was robust, but some proposals were easily excluded; maintenance might be too difficult or expensive, they determined.

The city’s own public art proposal policy notes that funding for maintenance of artworks is limited and artists may be required to accept responsibility for maintenance or establish an endowment to cover the costs. The review process, the policy notes, considers the appropriateness of materials and costs for installation and maintenance when selecting projects.

If the Space Whale were to be presented to the Public Art Committee today, would members still recommend the proposal?  

That question is hard to answer. But maintenance of the piece was a priority in the contract. Schultz was required to inspect the sculpture weekly for the duration of the lease and lease extension and make prompt repairs.

Once the extension expired it was noted in one Arts and Culture Commission meeting that Mayor Schieve wanted to contract out preventive maintenance with someone other than the artist.

Public art increasingly beneficial to cities, if maintained 

The City of Reno’s Public Art Master Plan, finalized in 2002, suggests that a successful public art program reflects and enhances the community.

“Maintenance can be the Achilles Heel of an otherwise well-conceived and properly administered Public Art Program,” the plan notes. “When one considers the significant public investment being made in the creation of a public art collection, it is crucial that the collection be maintained regularly and properly.”

Ten percent of the public arts budget was recommended to be allocated to maintenance of artworks. Discussion during Arts and Culture Commission meetings, however, repeatedly notes the lack of budget for maintenance of public art despite the tremendous economic impact the City says such art helps to contribute.

In 2017, as the Space Whale was being raised in the background, Alexis Hill, then-manager of the city’s arts and culture program, noted a recent study that found an $89 million annual economic impact of arts and culture in the community.

Mike Kazmierski of EDAWN speaking in 2018. Image: Bob Conrad.

Both RSCVA and EDAWN promote arts and culture as vital components within the community.

The Space Whale is prominently featured in VisitRenoTahoe.com’s promotion of local public art, but RSCVA’s Director of Communications Ben McDonald said that there’s nothing more to say about the sculpture until the board makes its decision.

EDAWN’s three-year strategic plan identifies support of community arts initiatives and revitalization of downtown as strategies to implement. EDAWN CEO Mike Kazmierski said he plans to discuss the value of public art on economic development with the RSCVA board in their consideration of the Space Whale funding.

“EDAWN has long been a fan and supporter of arts and culture in our community, and the Space Whale is a great example of public art,” said Kazmierski, adding that the sculpture’s ties to Burning Man help to connect the city’s brand to the desert festival. “It is especially attractive in its symbology of rebirth as the region’s economy is going through a rebirth as well…I am hopeful that as a community, we can find a way to retain and maintain this iconic piece of art.”

Just last year Kazmierski lamented in an op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal that “our downtown remains an eyesore to visitors and residents alike.” He went on to praise the efforts of the recently launched Downtown Ambassador program and their effects on the cleanliness and safety of the area.

Their presence, he wrote, “lessens the ‘broken window’ effect we have had in the core of Reno for many years.”

There was no mention, however, of the effect broken art has had on downtown Reno.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.