Dog-killing artist's $1.4M commissions with San Francisco at risk

Tom Otterness’ sculptures are on display in the New York City subway system. (Joseph Clerici/The Examiner)Tom Otterness’ sculptures are on display in the New York City subway system. (Joseph Clerici/The Examiner)

Tom Otterness’ sculptures are on display in the New York City subway system. (Joseph Clerici/The Examiner)Tom Otterness’ sculptures are on display in the New York City subway system. (Joseph Clerici/The Examiner)

The City may terminate $1.4 million in art contracts with Brooklyn artist Tom Otterness on Wednesday after revelations that he shot and killed a dog on film and called it art sparked outrage in San Francisco.

But if The City does so, it could have to eat $365,750 in payments it has already made to Otterness.

San Francisco’s Arts Commission, which is in charge of publicly funded art projects, will hold a Wednesday meeting to vote on whether to rescind the contracts.

The commission said it was unaware of the incident when it awarded Otterness earlier this year with a $750,000 contract for 59 bronze sculptures in the Moscone station of the proposed Central Subway project. A $700,000 contract was awarded last year for a sculpture at San Francisco General Hospital.

Calls to rescind the contracts came after The San Francisco Examiner reported in September how Otterness, at the age of 25 in 1977, bought a shelter dog, tied it to a fence and shot it on camera. He displayed the footage in an art exhibit in a constant loop and called it “Shot Dog Film.” Amid the outcry, Mayor Ed Lee called for a hold on the two city contracts.  

Arts Commission Chairman PJ Johnston said that since then “due diligence” has been done with discussions among city departments and legal counsel, but he would not disclose details. He said he wanted to wait to brief the commissioners at the meeting. “I can’t get out in front of that,” Johnston said.

It’s unclear if The City has the legal right to terminate the contracts based on the past incident and also recoup the money already paid for the unfinished Mother with Children sculpture commissioned.

Johnston said he remains “torn” on how to vote. He said he is a dog owner and finds the act “abhorrent,” but is concerned with the commission “getting into the position of judging the artist rather than the art.”

Otterness is a world-renowned sculptor famous for his whimsical, cartoonlike sculptures of people and animals on display in locations such as the New York City subway and the San Jose Happy Hollow Park and Zoo. Otterness’ public art commissions have caused similar objections in other cities.  

One city agency, the San Francisco Animal Control and Welfare Commission, has already spoken out on the contracts and called for their termination in an Oct. 14 letter sent to Lee and the Arts Commission.

“The city of St. Francis cannot display, with public funding, art from someone who has committed such an unconscionable act of animal cruelty,” the letter said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

Pricey pieces

Contracts with Tom Otterness

$750,000 Amount of contract with Otterness for 59 pieces in the Moscone station of the proposed Central Subway project
$700,000 Amount of contract for sculpture at
San Francisco General Hospital
$365,750 Payments The City has already made to Otterness for unfinished hospital sculpture

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