A Brooklyn artist who once shot and killed a dog and called it art has landed a coveted $750,000 city art contract for the Central Subway.
As if the $1.6 billion railway weren’t controversial enough, artist Tom Otterness’ commission can be expected to generate criticism from dog lovers and animal rights groups.
In June, the board of directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved a contract with Otterness for 59 bronze sculptures to fill three levels of the proposed subway’s Moscone station. An agency spokesman said the board was unaware of Otterness’ controversial past and relied on a recommendation from the Arts Commission.
But in May, animal rights groups and dog lovers blasted a planned Otterness art project involving bronze lions at a New York Public Library branch. An online petition to revoke the commission was signed by 11,209 people.
“Tom Otterness is a world-renowned sculptor who has been commissioned by government agencies around the world to create major permanent public art projects,” Susan Pontious, director of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s public art program, said in a statement. “The Central Subway Artist Selection Panel chose Otterness based on the strength of his proposal and his impressive portfolio of past sculptural work.”
Otterness has long since apologized for the 1977 film project in which he shot a dog. He continues to receive commissions, and his generally cute, cartoonish bronze sculptures of people and animals are on display in the New York City subway system and elsewhere around the world.
But “sorry” isn’t doing it for everyone.
“You do not let an animal shooter put up 59 sculptures in your subway system,” said Anita Carswell, director of the Guardian Campaign for In Defense of Animals. “This is a slap in the face of The City. It’s going to be offensive to everybody that rides the subway, a reminder: ‘People who shoot dogs for stupid reasons get rewarded.’”
She noted The City’s namesake is St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
In a town where there are more dogs than children and more than 4,000 people commented on a proposal to increase leash requirements at Ocean Beach, the artist’s past is likely to cause outrage.
“My initial reaction is yes, it’s not a great fit for San Francisco,” said Sally Stephens, chair of Animal Control and Welfare Commission.
It’s unclear if the Arts Commission, which was charged with selecting the artist, was aware of the incident. The SFMTA board of directors evidently was not.
“The board was not aware of this at the time,” spokesman Paul Rose said. “They relied heavily upon the selection panel in making the decision.”
The contract is the latest controversy to plague the proposed 1.7-mile subway from South of Market to Chinatown. It is being called a waste by some mayoral candidates, and an $8 million subsidy to a politically connected nonprofit group to build housing has raised eyebrows.
The story has been told and retold many times as artist Tom Otterness continues to receive public art commissions.
In 1977, at the age of 25, he bought a small black and white dog from an animal shelter, chained it to a fence and then shot it. He filmed it, called it “art” and titled the piece “Shot Dog Film,” according to numerous media reports.
Otterness has been asked to respond to the incident over the years amid criticism that inevitably surfaces when governments or other entities commission one of his whimsical bronze sculptures.
In April 2008, he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Thirty years ago, when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me.”
In a recent New York Observer magazine article, the reporter said Otterness knew the question about the dog killing was coming:
“What the f— do I do with this?” he said. He grew visibly upset. “Certainly the scene it was part of, it was in the context of the times and the scene I was in.” He began again. “It is something I’ve grown to understand that nothing really excuses that kind of action. I had a very convoluted logic as to what effect I meant to have with that video. Whatever I had in mind, it was really inexcusable to take a life in service of that.”
Messages seeking comment left at Otterness’ Brooklyn art studio were not returned.