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Home > Opinion > OPINION: A whale of a boondoggle

OPINION: A whale of a boondoggle

By Bob Conrad

The City of Reno’s sneaky purchase of the Space Whale sculpture is a slap in the face to the public, artists and city staff.

Predictable commentary followed our reporting that the City of Reno quietly purchased the Space Whale last week using general fund tax dollars.

Gripes included the cliched–“We live in a desert, so why a whale?”–and the apples-to-oranges: “Why not use the money to help the homeless?”

Neither response is helpful and both miss the salient point: City officials, likely led by the mayor, inked the deal behind closed doors with zero regard for public input.

Sure, the Space Whale’s purchase was discussed, briefly, as part of a budget augmentation in late October. Only Council member Jenny Brekhus raised the concern about sneaking the sculpture’s purchase into a budget change along with the conversion of City Plaza into a skate park.

The whale was originally pitched to be in Reno as the first stop on a world tour. The lease agreement between the city and whale co-creator Matt Schultz was for a year with a possible second year extension. The extension, approved by the City Council, expired in 2019.

Members of the Reno Arts and Culture Commission supported the whale’s installation. It also wanted other art in its place after the whale’s lease expired.

Commissioners wrote in 2019 the following to the Reno City Council:

“In 2018, our Public Art Committee stated they were ‘not interested in continuing the lease of the Space Whale and looks forward to installing a new piece of art on the Plaza in its place. Because of the fragility of the Space Whale as an art piece and the cost and challenge of ongoing maintenance, the Public Art Committee does not recommend ownership of the piece, either as an acquisition or as a gift. The Committee highly recommends the Space Whale be appropriately maintained until its ultimate removal from the Plaza.’

“We are pursuing another iconic piece as a replacement,” commissioners added. “We learned–from the selection of a signature sculpture for the Midtown project–that there are other impressive pieces, ones better suited to on-going public interaction, that might be purchased or leased.”

A new piece was never installed. The whale’s been living rent-free on the plaza since 2019, and the whale’s purchase last week occurred without input by the city’s arts commission. Since the city’s plaza is now also converted to a skatepark, future art in the space–and the opportunity for other artists to install pieces–is unclear.

Broken glass and twisted metal are part of $75,000 worth of repairs needed to City Plaza's now permanent Space Whale. Taxpayers will be footing the bill for the damage. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, Nov. 18, 2021.
Broken glass and twisted metal are part of $75,000 worth of repairs needed to City Plaza’s now permanent Space Whale. Taxpayers will be footing the bill for the damage. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, Nov. 18, 2021.

Staff bemoaned whale’s condition

City staff for years fielded numerous complaints about the whale’s condition. The city’s public arts coordinator, Megan Berner, repeatedly requested of Schultz that he make repairs to the whale.

Broken glass and jutting spikes of metal now mar the once pristine piece. Damage to the sculpture was evident within days of its installation in 2017. It has continued to be vandalized ever since, which prompted the arts commission to call it “an unsafe and unsupportable piece of public art.”

The city’s 2017 contract with Schultz had a 48-hour period to make repairs. Public records obtained by This Is Reno show Berner making regular requests to get the damage fixed. That would occur days or even weeks later.

“I’m sorry,” Schultz wrote Aug. 2, 2019 in an email to Berner, after she again requested repairs. “We really are trying our best. I didn’t fully understand how much abuse the whale would get. I’m just in over my head.”

A weekly maintenance schedule mentioned by Schultz was later downgraded to an every other week trip to the whale for repairs.

Changing talking points

Leasing the whale was controversial in the first place. Talking points drafted in 2017 by City of Reno PR people attempted to mitigate potential concerns by members of the public. This Is Reno reported those messages.

“It’s not taxpayer funded at all,” Alexis Hill, then the city’s arts and culture director, assured me.

That message showed up again and again.

“Of note, the Space Whale is being paid for via a special fund dedicated in part to the arts, not the general fund,” Council member Naomi Duerr said at the time as part of a press announcement.

The refrain was emphasized so that people didn’t get the idea the city was, perhaps, irresponsibly using taxpayer dollars for a single art piece.

Mention that now, though, and the Space Whale’s defenders, apologists and promoters will counter the point once notably advanced by city officials.

“Whatever you think of these decisions—whether you favor or oppose them—we should all be concerned about the breakdown of public process.”

“All art funding comes from the General Fund basically…,” former Council member Dave Aiazzi, who was instrumental in getting the whale installed at City Plaza, posted on Facebook in late October.

City Manager Doug Thornley this week said the same thing: “Room Tax dollars are, technically, general fund dollars…”

Flip-flopped rationales for the lease and now the whale’s purchase mean at least one thing: City officials will adjust talking points to match the narrative of the day even if the new point cancels the old.

The latest and greatest reason cited by those who pushed for the whale’s permanent residence at City Plaza? People take photos of it. A lot of them.

“The Whale has more than 100,000,000 hits on social media…” Aiazzi wrote, also in October.

Thornley echoed the same point this week: “The whale has become an icon for Reno, second only to the arch in unique impressions online according to the RSCVA.”

Such stellar rationales, one might think, should embolden community support and, therefore, a breezy approval by the Reno Arts and Culture Commission and, then, the City Council.

Nope.

When asked about negotiations to purchase the whale, a city spokesperson in September refused to provide any details. The whale’s purchase then only appeared in a massive budget augmentation buried in the City Council’s Oct. 27 meeting agenda. Three council members reached before the meeting said they had no idea the purchase was up for approval.

Transparency takes another hit

Reno historian Alicia Barber recently raised a litany of issues with the city’s backdoor deals being sneakily thrust upon the public, particularly how the Oct. 27 budget augmentation was a catch-all approval for items normally heard by commissions and as stand-alone council agenda items.

EDITORIAL MEME by Darren Archambault. Darren is a graphic designer, meme artist, musician and political activist. When he is not doing freelance design or music, he is creating political editorial style memes, and co-running Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid.
EDITORIAL MEME by Darren Archambault. Darren is a graphic designer, meme artist, musician and political activist. When he is not doing freelance design or music, he is creating political editorial style memes, and co-running Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid.

Her most recent Substack post, called “Public Process in Crisis,” detailed the ways city officials have sidestepped openness and demeaned those who’ve raised concerns about the city’s lack of transparency. She called out a number of concerns, including using general fund dollars to pay for the Space Whale and the skatepark “elements” to be installed at City Plaza. 

Barber had a right to be concerned. City Plaza became a skatepark days after the Oct. 27 council meeting. The budget augmentation passed–Brekhus voted against it–even though its add-ons skirted the council’s past practices of having community input for things like public art. The BELIEVE and Dragonfly pieces were good enough for multiple public meetings; why not the Space Whale’s purchase?

The reason City Manager Thornley offered: “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.”

Barber wrote:

“Over the past months we’ve seen a clear escalation in plans being formulated out of public view and with no public outreach, the bypassing of citizen commissions, dismissal of public opposition, and criticisms by some City leaders of ‘swirling misinformation’ about issues and projects while not themselves creating opportunities to provide timely and accurate information in public forums.”

The tale of the whale supports what Barber noticed as a dizzying trend at City Hall.

“Whatever you think of these decisions—whether you favor or oppose them—we should all be concerned about the breakdown of public process, and not let what’s happening be normalized, as I’m afraid is starting to happen,” she wrote.

Make no mistake: The Space Whale, like all great art, ticks the box of provoking sustained community response—and now, apparently, a crap ton of selfies. Most artists can only hope for that kind of attention.

Much of the controversy, however, reflects not the sculpture’s aesthetic, as an artist may desire; it instead symbolizes how incredibly narrow interests can get what they want at City Hall with only a modicum of public input, let alone support.

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