The City of Reno has purchased the dilapidated Space Whale for $137,000. The purchase price includes about $75,000 to repair the whale.
The whale’s stained glass is broken in dozens of locations. City officials years ago said the glass should be replaced with Lexan — clear plastic less susceptible to breaking.
“It is an unsafe and unsupportable piece of public art,” Reno Arts Commission members wrote in a September 2019 letter to the City Council. They expressed concern over the whale’s ongoing state of disrepair.
Vandalism to the whale has continued since it was first installed in 2017. City staff repeatedly asked the artist Matt Schultz to fix broken glass after it was installed.
The whale’s purchase November 15 occurred without a formal city council approval. As first reported by This Is Reno in October, the purchase was tucked into a budget augmentation which was approved in late October. Council members reached prior to the Oct. 27 city council meeting said they were unaware the city was considering the whale’s purchase using general fund dollars.
A public records order placed with the city clerk for copies of the purchase agreement for the whale offer was denied.
“There are no agreements, contracts, or proposals related to the Space Whale,” the city clerk replied.
That wasn’t true. A draft contract, dated Oct. 26, was added onto the Oct. 27 meeting agenda as an attachment after the original agenda was posted.City Manager Doug Thornley apologized and said this was a miscommunication.
Only City Council member Jenny Brekhus questioned the whale’s purchase at the Oct. 27 meeting.
“Did you have any public meetings?” she asked. “I’m not sure an augmentation is the time to talk about how arguably our most important program, public space in the city, has been planned out. This should not have been buried in [a budget] augmentation.”
Schultz tried to sell the whale on Facebook for $1 million, apparently with no takers. Schultz previously wanted the city to buy for $500,000.
“At this time, I cannot recommend to our Council a purchase of the Space Whale for $500,000,” then City Manager Sabra Newby wrote to Schultz. “I may be able to recommend a purchase at the $150,000 level, where the $100,000 would be for the piece itself and $50,000 would be dedicated directly to your team members for services and supplies to repair the Space Whale.”
The final purchase price, not including the $75,000 for repairs, is $62,500.
When asked why general fund dollars were used, Mayor Hillary Schieve said it was so the whale could get fixed.
“It needed to get funded so it could get fixed as soon as possible,” she said. “[It] could be a liability if panels fall so we couldn’t drag our feet anymore. I also have planned on doing an NFT with it to raise money for local arts; however, first proceeds would go back to paying for the purchase. We will be the first city to do an NFT with public art.”
Purchase sidesteps public input
The Space Whale’s purchase is different from past city processes on two fronts. Large purchases of other city sculptures have been paid for using room tax dollars–income generated by tourists staying in Reno hotels–and those purchases were approved by the city council during public meetings.
When the city purchased the BELIEVE sculpture in 2015, there were a number of opportunities for public input. The agreement to install the sculpture, as well as its purchase, appeared on a handful of Reno City Council agendas.
An agreement to install BELIEVE at City Plaza was approved by the council June 25, 2014. Its purchase for $68,000 was mentioned in a budget augmentation May 15, 2015. The purchase, using room tax funds, was approved June 17, 2015 during a block vote of the Reno City Council.
From the June 17, 2015 staff report:
“The sculpture BELIEVE was temporarily installed on the City Plaza in July 2014 as the backdrop for the filming of the American Idol summer bus tour. It was very well received by the public so the City and the RACC sought to raise the funds to purchase the sculpture. Some monies were raised through the Community Foundation of Western Nevada but not enough to purchase the sculpture.”
A donation from NV Energy to light the piece appeared in the April 13, 2016 council agenda.
Peter Hazel’s Dragonfly, installed at Virginia Lake, also went through public approval processes. The Dragonfly’s purchase, using room tax and residential construction funds, was heard by the council twice in September 2016.
Four people provided public comment in support of the purchase, including the artist.
When asked why the whale was not included on a council meeting agenda, City Manager Thornley said, “I’ve been trying to keep the agendas tailored to the issues that the council must see in an effort to keep the meetings smooth and timely.”
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.